Bus, train services take measures to protect drivers and passengers from COVID-19

Southeast Area Transit bus driver Sendra Childs said she feels afraid going to work every day.

She said she’s doing her best to keep herself safe: using sanitizer, wearing gloves, wiping down the driver’s area before her shift, answering customers’ questions as best she can while keeping her distance, and changing her clothes as soon as she gets home.

But Childs said she’s worried about being exposed to the coronavirus and bringing it home to her family, especially her daughter, who has Grave’s disease.

“I’m out here all day long,” Childs said.

Jaroslaw Pizunski, ATU Local 1209 president and business agent, said the drivers love to provide the bus service, but they are exposed to so many people in a day and are finding themselves suddenly on the front lines: “We didn’t sign up for that,” he said.

Three SEAT drivers are self-quarantining after experiencing symptoms, such as cough, but as of now, no positive test results of COVID-19 have been reported, SEAT General Manager Michael Carroll said.

Transit officials said they are working to protect drivers and passengers, while still providing the service for people who rely on it.

“We know we have customers who depend on us to get to the grocery store, to get to the doctor’s office, to get to the pharmacy, to take care of those essential life functions,” Carroll said.

The state on Thursday authorized transit districts to enable passengers to board by the back door, except for people in wheelchairs, he said. SEAT also is blocking off front seats, particularly on smaller buses, such as the ones for paratransit services, to maintain distance between the drivers and riders.

SEAT is eliminating Sunday service until further notice, beginning this Sunday, and will end Monday-Saturday service at 7 or 8 p.m., depending on the route, starting on Monday, Carroll said. The transit district will continue to look at service and may need to make adjustments in the future or, if under a state or federal directive, shut down service altogether.

Pizunski proposed cutting service to every other hour, rather than every hour. That way the transit district could still serve people who need get to the grocery store or other essential places, but also minimize the hazard to drivers. Under that scenario, half of the 40 drivers could remain at home on stand-by, limiting the number of drivers who are potentially exposed. He added that he is particularly concerned for older drivers.

Pizunski said drivers are scared: “People are coming to me and asking questions,” he said.

Carroll said SEAT is taking steps on behalf of its drivers, including providing gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, and encouraging them to deploy a plexiglass barrier on the bus between them and passengers. “Our drivers are obviously concerned, and we’re trying to address those concerns,” he said.

For weeks, SEAT has been stepping up its regular nightly bus cleaning by disinfecting handrails and other surfaces and spraying the bus with disinfectant, he said. The transit district is in the process of putting up more signs about the importance of social distancing and is considering roping off every other bus seat and rolling out mid-shift bus cleaning.

SEAT posted reminders on social media that people should not ride the bus if they feel sick and is encouraging employees who feel sick not to come to work.

Carroll said the transit district will work with the employees, and if they have significant concerns, for example due to their age or underlying medical conditions, they have the option of taking advantage of leave of absence provisions in the contract.

“We appreciate all they’re doing and we’re committed to working with them and doing our best to keep them safe,” he added.

But Pizunski said not everyone has sick time. He has proposed a memorandum of understanding so new federal provisions in response to the coronavirus that will allow workers to take two weeks of leave would apply immediately for SEAT employees.

Ridership down

Overall, public transit ridership has dropped across the state as people practice social distancing, and the state Department of Transportation is urging people to use the service for only essential travel and avoid taking it if they feel sick, DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said.

Ridership on Shore Line East trains is down by about 70%, he said, while Carroll said SEAT is seeing a 50% to 60% drop.

The declines minimize potential exposure to both passengers and operators and signifies that people are taking public health warnings seriously, Nursick said. People are isolating themselves and not taking mass transit, where large groups of people typically congregate. Also, more people are working remotely, and schools are closed.

Still, he added that it's important to continue to provide public transit for "essential users," as it's critical for some workers, including caregivers and nurses, to get to work.

DOT is telling people to avoid public transit if they are sick, Nursick said, and has directed all buses and trains to be cleaned and sanitized daily, focusing special attention on touch surfaces, such as handrails.

Amtrak is stepping up cleaning of trains and stations and making more sanitizers and wipes available to customers and workers, as well as reducing service, according to news releases.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s office said Thursday in an announcement that about 100 CTtransit buses now have “transparent, impermeable barriers providing a partition between drivers and passengers.”

Lamont also thanked transit workers: “I especially want to express my gratitude to all of the transit workers in Connecticut who are maintaining critical operations in order to ensure that the people of our state can safely get to where they need to be during this difficult time, including (health care) professionals and first responders who need to get to their jobs,” he said in a statement.

k.drelich@theday.com

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