Pandemic Chronicles: Bus drivers steer clear of contagion

What's it like these days on local buses?

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: People are social-distancing at a bus stop for the Lincoln Line on Fourth Street in Reno on May 6.

What’s it like these days on local buses?
In the olden days (two months ago) some people might have thought Cheri Johnson’s current pre-shift ritual was a case of germaphobia gone wild.

“When I get assigned a bus, I know the bus cleaners have already done a good job of sanitizing it,” said Johnson, a coach operator for the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County. “But I also do some cleaning myself. I’ll have my Lysol wipes and wipe everything down, not just my [driver’s] area. I think about people in general. What do they touch? I’ll wipe down those areas too while wearing disposable latex gloves. I usually drive with a pair of gardening gloves that my stepmother sent me. I can wash and disinfect those over and over.”

What may have been considered obsessive-compulsive behavior just weeks ago is now a routine start to a workday for Johnson and others who labor on the front lines of the COVID pandemic. That’s because they come within an arm’s length of scores of strangers daily. Getting very close to random members of the public is an unavoidable—and suddenly risky—part of their jobs.

If a mad scientist wanted to design a mobile virus incubator for humans, the evil genius could use public transit as a model. Trains, subways and buses can become rolling Petri dishes. They are metal-and-glass tubes. People get on and off in different parts of a city, always within touching distance of the operators and each other. Even with recent best-practices sanitation measures for buses, passengers’ precautions aren’t standard: some wear masks and gloves; others seem blissfully unconcerned about the outbreak. Even now, some riders don’t bother to cover their coughs or sneezes. The virus loves to travel. And a bus gives it a lot of places to go—and new, interesting people to meet.

Johnson said when the contagion began to dominate the news early this year, reports were alarming and confusing. “Then, when we knew it was a worldwide thing, that it didn’t have an age limit, it didn’t have a preference, and there was no way to tell who has it, it was really scary,” she said.

In those first weeks a cough on a coach could ignite an insurrection. “If someone coughed, we’d be like ‘get back!’” Johnson said. “We don’t want to ever treat passengers rudely, but some passengers would get on the bus and almost cough right in our face or in other people’s faces. I had several talks with one person coughing on the bus who didn’t cover their mouth, and the other passengers were on them, too. I had to say ‘OK, OK, calm down’ and stop the argument. One episode just happened [the last week of April]. It still happens. But it’s rare now.”

PHOTO/ FRANK X. MULLEN: Cheri Johnson, a coach operator with the Washoe Regional Transportation Commission, at the wheel of her bus.

And it can be deadly. On March 21, Jason Hargrove, a Detroit bus driver, was appalled when a passenger got on his coach, stood near him and repeatedly coughed without covering her mouth. He was so upset, he posted a video from his bus in which he swore in frustration and trembled as he pleaded with people to take the virus seriously. He got sick days afterward, just as the city was putting some safety measures in place. He died April 1, the same day seven other Detroit drivers tested positive for COVID.

In Washoe County, the RTC reacted to the crisis a lot faster, and there have been no COVID cases among its workforce. The commission began putting safety measures in place March 2, by beginning intensive daily cleaning of the coaches. On March 5, the commission installed work stations to provide its 176 drivers with daily supplies of masks, gloves and sanitizing wipes. Social distancing is imposed by yellow Xs marked with tape on every other row of seats to designate which rows are off limits. That removes 15 seats, leaving 25 available for passengers. Riders—who are encouraged to wear their own face masks—aren’t allowed to stand within the 14-foot-long area in the front of the bus that is reserved for passengers using wheelchairs. Sliding plastic curtains recently have been installed to shield drivers when customers are using the fare payment station next to the steering wheels.

“I think RTC is doing a good job,” Johnson said. “Joel [Danforth], our operations manager, is really trying to find more ways to keep us safe and keep the passengers safe.”

RTC ridership is down more than 60 percent since Nevada’s stay-at-home order was imposed, said Michael Moreno, RTC spokesman. On May 6, for example, 10,477 passengers rode the system as compared to 25,867 passengers on the same date last year. In April 2019, more than 687,800 riders took RTC buses, but last month that number dropped to 306,800. The missing riders translate into lost revenue. The commission’s operating budget comes from fares and sales taxes, and it has received $20.8 million from the federal CARES Act to help offset the financial loss.

Most Reno-Sparks bus stops are now lonely outposts with often empty benches. Many buses move through town with just three or four riders at a time, and the commission reports that only six percent of trips have more than 15 passengers, which allows for ample social-distancing on board. But some routes—such as the 22-mile-long No. 7 bus ride between downtown Reno and Stead—still get busy early in the morning when riders go to work in the north and when they return south in the afternoon.

“Those early buses, like 7 [a.m.], are full a lot,” said Tom Avila, who was having lunch outside his workplace in Stead on May 6. “Not the Xed-out seats, you can’t sit there, but there’s usually two people in the other (double) seats, and that’s pretty close together. Sometimes people stand between those seats.”

Moreno said RTC sends out “booster” buses when more than 15 passengers are waiting to board at a stop and the driver alerts the dispatcher. But he said sometimes extra drivers aren’t available. Moreno said the commission is working to overcome that situation by offering more overtime pay and continuing to hire and train more drivers. During the past two months, he said, five new coach operators have been added to the work force.

The Lincoln Line, the route along Fourth Street in Reno to Centennial Plaza in Sparks, can also be relatively busy. Cindy Williams, who waited for that bus on May 6, had her mask pulled down around her neck so she could read a book without fogging up her glasses. She said the Lincoln Line isn’t getting the number of passengers that it did pre-COVID, but it still has riders in the mornings and mid-afternoon.

“I can usually have a (double) seat to myself, though,” she said. She said RTC is doing a good job with safety procedures but “there’s only so much they can do. We have to take on some responsibility for ourselves.” That’s why she wears a mask and wipes down anything she is about to touch. She wishes every rider would do the same, she said.

Earl Perry, a coach operator who works the “extra board,” which means he fills in on whichever route needs a driver, said some passengers wear masks and some don’t.

“It depends on the day,” he said. “Some days I’d see nearly everyone with masks. The next run, I’ll get three or four or seven passengers and nobody’s got a mask. … Now, I’d say maybe about 60 or 70 percent are wearing them.”

Perry said he takes precautions and makes sure he’s careful, but, in the end, the job comes first. “It’s been different,” he said. “A lot of people are scared to go out, but some people have to go out, have to get to work, go shopping. Like them, I have to show up and do what I do. I think about [the virus] but try not to let it bother me. You can’t stop doing what you do; you can cripple a society. A lot of people rely on us so they can do their jobs. I pride myself on being there on time and getting them where they’ve got to go.”

Johnson said she worries about catching the virus, especially with two sons at home. “I do think about it a lot,” she said. “I deal with it. I’m real spiritual, and that helps. I pray before I leave for work. I meditate a lot. I try not to move fast. I take my time and think about everything I’m doing. I don’t want to forget and not put on my mask or touch anything without gloves.”
She stays true to her new routine, going down a checklist in her head, like a pilot prepping for a flight.

Perry said the threat of the virus has touched everyone and changed everything once considered normal, but he sees some positive signs in his daily treks across the Truckee Meadows. “I’ve seen people trying to come together and trying to work their way through this by helping each other out,” he said, and by doing the “essential” jobs that keep society from collapsing under the weight of a national crisis.

“That’s all we can do,” he said. “I don’t care who you are, if I can give you a ride, I will do so. To me it’s a simple job. Make sure you are on time and get the people where they need to go. That’s what we do. The rest is up to higher powers.”

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1 Comment

  1. Where I’m at (Washington state) all transit systems went fare-free in mid-March. This is a huge help to those of us deemed “essential workers” who have to take the bus. I was paying $60/month. The entire front of our buses are off-limits now, except to people in wheelchairs or with walkers. And the buses have their windows open all the time, even at 5:30am, even during snow storms. They recently started asking riders to wear masks, which is fine but no one is enforcing it. I see A LOT of high schoolers and college-aged people completely ignoring the mask recommendation and social distancing. But then they were doing that when this started in March. Ah to be young and think you’re invincible.

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