Buses are “petri dishes,” some drivers say

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Bus systems are taking extra precautions to increase the safety of their personnel during the coronavirus pandemic, as many transit employees say they are at high risk. 

According to Clark Harder, the executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, bus drivers and other personnel have had rising concerns as the crisis has gotten worse. 

“I’ve heard a lot of transit agencies say, ‘Look, we’re walking petri dishes,’” Harder said. “And we’re harming our own people in the process. We need to operate as safely as possible.”

Harder said that Clare County’s transit system had a mechanic who refused to come into work because he feared for his health. Because the employee was considered essential, he was terminated. The agency is still looking for a replacement. 

Harder said one way to keep drivers and other employees from quitting is to make the buses as clean as possible. 

He said that every transit agency is disinfecting more stringently. Though the Federal Transit Administration’s basic requirement is to sanitize once every 24 hours, many systems are sanitizing high-touch areas like seats and rails between each ride. 

Other agencies have hired and reassigned cleanings crews so routine sanitization is easier throughout the day. 

Lolo Robison, the public information officer for the Capital Area Transit Authority in Lansing, said the agency has a cleaning crew that now sanitizes buses several times a day to keep them safer for drivers. 

The drivers, as well as cleaners, are also offered masks, gloves and goggles if they feel it is necessary. 

The National Public Transit Association recently asked the federal government to consider bus drivers second-priority for mask supplies, after medical workers. 

Harder said many other transit systems are offering free transportation simply because they don’t want drivers handling money and making change. 

Becky Charboneau, the transportation manager for EMGO Rides in Emmet County, said that in addition to increased sanitization, the agency no longer accepts money or punch cards so it can reduce contact. 

Harder said that most agencies in Michigan have also moved to providing essential services only and shut down regular bus routes to stop the spread of the virus and ensure passengers’ safety. 

Delynn Klein, the executive director of the Marquette County Transit Authority, said the agency has moved to demand-only service. 

The authority has also limited service to only two passengers per bus to ensure social distancing. 

Klein said to keep drivers safe, the authority recently started offering alcohol wipes and bags for drivers’ cell phones.

So far, the agency has had no problem keeping its personnel. Klein said it’s still important for bus drivers to consider their health. 

“If an employee feels sick, they should absolutely stay home,” Klein said. 

In Emmet County, the transit system already operated as demand service only, but passengers are encouraged to limit trips to once a week and only travel for essential services like the grocery store or pharmacy. 

EMGO is also limiting rides to two passengers at a time. The agency is also encouraging the drivers to step off the bus while the passengers enter for the drivers safety. 

Charboneau said limited passengers has not caused issues for the smaller county.

“We are serving the public and a lot of people who use us don’t have cars,” Charboneau said. “We have the luxury of limiting one to two people on the bus and still able to meet our needs, so we’re very lucky for that.”

Charboneau said that trained personnel who are at high risk or have high-risk family members are offered the opportunity to move to phone operations or other positions where they don’t have to be in the public. 

“If they have a situation, we’re honoring that,” Charboneau said.

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