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Public transit during the reopening: Masked commuters and cordoned off seats

CNN's Tom Foreman highlights the steps needed to help reopen the US economy safely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Posted: Apr 25, 2020 7:42 AM
Updated: Apr 27, 2020 11:45 AM


Masked rush-hour commuters. Subway cars and stations that reek of bleach. Legs crossed with empty seats on each side on the express.

As US cities move to reopen on the other side of the curve of the coronavirus pandemic, beleaguered transit systems focused on shuttling essential workers to hospitals, nursing homes and food markets are scrambling to meet the demands of that new world.

'This is going to be a slower ramp up than I think anybody expected, even a few weeks ago,' said Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group.

'As long as we remain in a shutdown mode or a partial mode, I think that ramp up will be rather slow.'

From New York to Chicago to San Francisco, the nation's transit systems are still working out the details of a return to a semblance of normalcy on buses and rails.

This is what it might look like, according to industry experts and policies implemented during the health crisis.

Keeping people away from each other

Under a pilot program at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York City's subways, buses and two commuter rail lines, vinyl shields have been installed on buses to further separate passengers and drivers.

The MTA is consulting trade associations and transit agencies around the world to develop a plan to increase service as the state reopens, according to spokeswoman Meredith Daniels.

'The focus will remain on customers, employees, cleaning and social distancing,' Daniels said in a statement, adding that a 'temperature brigade' of medically trained personnel will continue to check employees for fever.

The MTA is checking more than 3,500 employees a day for fevers.

Dorval R. Carter Jr., Chicago Transit Authority president, was short on specifics but said the agency was 'preparing a versatile, strategic framework' that would allow CTA to 'meet the demands of the 'new normal.''

'It is our responsibility to meet that 'new normal' with innovation, agile service delivery and creative investments in our people and infrastructure to ensure public transportation helps to drive our recovery,' Carter said in a statement.

In southeast Michigan, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), said it, too, was developing a plan.

'Should social distancing be continued we will monitor ridership and add buses as we are able to increase frequencies along our higher ridership corridors, to accommodate heavier loads and allow for personal space on buses,' agency spokeswoman Beth Gibbons said in a statement.

SMART has health screenings of drivers, and separates riders and bus drivers with yellow chains to provide a safe zone for operators.

In northern California, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which connects San Francisco with Berkeley, Oakland and other cities, said it will follow the guidance of local health officials as the region gets back to business.

BART is running longer trains and monitoring ridership levels to ensure distancing.

'This will continue and we are prepared to scale up and begin to put more trains back into service to continue to maintain social distancing,' spokeswoman Alicia Trost said.

Transit agencies are consulting public health systems about social distancing, according to Skoutelas.

Seats could be cordoned off on buses and trains, leaving empty seats on each side of passengers. Train cars at each end have already been closed off to provide distance between operators and riders. Some buses will skip stops once a certain number of riders is reached.

Get ready for masked commuters

Like smart phones and cups of coffee, masks could become mainstays of the morning commute.

When some nonessential workers returned to their jobs in Spain's Madrid region this month, police and Spanish Red Cross volunteers distributed millions of protective masks at metro stations and transit hubs.

'We can't even know what kind of normality we're returning to,' Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said.

Expect the same in the United States.

'We're going to need a culture of mask wearing among riders,' said Ben Fried of the TransitCenter advocacy group. 'When everyone is wearing a mask on the vehicles that is much safer for everyone.'

In New York, MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye, who himself contracted the virus, said riders have mostly heeded Gov. Andrew Cuomo's direction that the public wear masks, scarfs or bandanas. Self-policing has helped.

'The MTA police, the NYPD, transit workers and, frankly, our fellow ... passengers on public buses, Long Island (Rail Road) and Metro-North are monitoring that,' he said in a weekend radio interview.

In Philadelphia, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has distributed surgical masks to transit riders.

New Jersey Transit riders are now required to wear face coverings, according to an executive order signed by Gov. Phil Murphy.

SMART in Michigan is developing a mask policy.

Some Northern California counties have made face coverings on public transit mandatory -- at least for now.

'We are now enforcing this and are educating riders about the new requirement,' said BART's Trost.

The use of masks will help regain the public's confidence in transit, Fried said.

'What's going to make people feel comfortable riding transit is: One, knowing the agency is continuing to disinfect surfaces very frequently and, two, seeing the rest of their fellow passengers are being cautious and wearing masks,' he said.

The masks are not just to protect the riding public.

The death of Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove earlier this month highlighted the plight of the nation's transit workers during the pandemic.

In a March 21 video, the Detroit Department of Transportation driver urged his city to take the coronavirus seriously. He was upset a woman did not cover her coughing on his bus.

'For us to get through this and get over this, y'all need to take this seriously... There's folks dying out here,' he said.

Hargrove got sick four days later. He died April 1 at the age of 50. It is unclear how he got Covid-19.

'We see more sick people than any doctor,' bus drivers' union President Glenn Tolbert told CNN.

The unsung heroes of the pandemic

The gradual return of nonessential workers across the country will provide an opportunity to thank the unsung heroes of the pandemic -- the legions of transit employees who are shuttling the doctors, nurses and first responders that keep cities functioning.

At the MTA in New York, more than 80 employees have died from complications related to the coronavirus, according to spokesman Aaron Donovan. Subways accounted for at least 50 of those deaths, buses had 30.

Thousands of workers tested positive for the coronavirus or self-quarantined.

'New York wouldn't have a fighting chance against this virus if transit workers weren't getting the blue collar heroes of this pandemic -- nurses, paramedics, food service workers -- to the front lines of the battle all across the metropolitan region,' said Transport Workers Union International President John Samuelsen, a former subway track worker.

After negotiations with unions, the MTA has agreed to pay $500,000 in benefits to family members of workers who died from COVID-19. The benefits include health insurance for spouses and dependents.

Transit agencies are financially strapped

The pandemic has worsened a nationwide decline in public transit, according to UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies.

Dramatic drops in riders during the health crisis come after five years of plummeting ridership across the country.

'With social distancing measures and shelter-in-place orders, transit ridership has plunged much deeper recently, with Transit App, Moovit, and Google reporting 50 percent to 90 percent declines in transit use in major metropolitan areas,' the institute said on its website.

Subway ridership is down 95% in New York City, according to the MTA.

The commuter rail lines -- Metro-North and Long Island Railroad -- have lost even more riders -- 95% and 97%, respectively.

Fare revenue has virtually disappeared in many transit systems. Some bus service providers have turned to rear-door boarding and free rides to protect drivers.

'Funding levels for transit are such that they were barely able to provide the level of service that they were,' said Kari Watkins, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. 'Transit was not in the best position when Covid even started.'

Congress' $2 trillion rescue package includes $25 billion for transit agencies -- an amount that won't go far on systems that have had to drastically alter operations.

'It's going to be short lived,' Skoutelas said of the emergency federal funds. 'No one at the time this deal was struck ... (realized) how long this economic situation would endure. It's safe to say that the $25 billion, while very welcomed and very timely, is certainly not going to be enough to sustain the industry in the medium term.'

In New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, the MTA received about $3.8 billion of the federal money. It projects revenue loses of $8.5 billion during the pandemic.

The agency has requested an additional $4 billion in emergency funds from the federal government. What will need to be cut without the extra cash remains unclear.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio believes riders will return.

'In the short term, of course, everyone's going to be cautious to protect their own health and safety and their family's health and safety,' he said on a radio show. 'But New Yorkers are amazingly resilient and, as we come out of this, I think the vast majority of us are going to resume the lives that we have had.'

Across the country, however, the lasting damage has been done.

'New York, (Washington) DC, LA, Chicago, San Francisco -- all these big transit cities -- they're going to have financial problems fairly soon if Congress doesn't act again,' Fried said.

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