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Getting There: STA, riders work to keep buses safe and moving, despite coronavirus concerns

Ridership has declined somewhat on the STA bus system due to coronavirus. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Ridership has declined somewhat on the STA bus system due to coronavirus. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Amanda Griffin isn’t going “full-blown medic” as she rides the Spokane Transit Authority bus system with her 3-year-old son, she said late last week, while waiting outside the STA Plaza downtown. But she is changing her behavior in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

That means no mask and no panic for Griffin, but it also means she and her son are washing their hands more often and trying to avoid contact with surfaces.

“I take the precautions,” Griffin said. “I just don’t go overboard.”

With officials – city, state and worldwide – urging people to practice social distancing and avoid crowds as much as possible to slow the infection rate of the virus, the very nature of public transit makes it difficult for those who ride to follow those recommendations and orders.

Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s director of communications and customer service, said the agency is, like Griffin, trying to reduce viral transmission on the buses without going overboard in its response.

For STA, that means vowing to keep buses running while also working to make them as safe as possible.

The agency is wiping down and mopping with disinfectant all buses and paratransit vans every night, Rapez-Betty said, and also offering personal protective equipment like gloves and hand sanitizer to all “frontline people,” including drivers. He said STA also has offered disinfectant wipes to vans in the Vanpool system.

“So we’re basically offering those to anyone who wants them,” Rapez-Betty said.

STA also has N95 masks at the ready, though Rapez-Betty noted the agency is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization guidelines, which say only health care professionals should wear face masks.

“They’re on hand in case the situation changes and we’re advised by a health authority” to use them, Rapez-Betty said. “At this point, we have not deployed them.”

While drivers have been advised to keep their areas clean, the transit agency also has posted signs on all buses and vans offering people tips on how to reduce their risk of contracting the virus while traveling on the STA system.

Despite those precautions, Rapez-Betty acknowledged the primary recommendation health professionals are making – social distancing – “can be difficult on the bus.”

Some people can stop riding the bus altogether and hop in some other, safer form of transportation. There’s evidence a fraction of regular STA riders already have done so.

Bus ridership was down about 4.3% between this year and last year when comparing a seven-day period that ended last Thursday. Paratransit rides were down about 5% over the same period.

“That would be a sign of those people who have opted to social distance,” Rapez-Betty said of the decline. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s people making those choices to protect themselves. What we want to be careful of is not to have a disparate impact on those who cannot afford to social distance themselves in the transportation environment.”

To avoid that disparate impact, STA is resolved to keep running.

“For some people, (the bus is) the only way to get to a place to buy food,” Rapez-Betty said.

It’s also the only way for many people, including some health care workers, to get to work.

For this significant population, he noted, STA is an “absolutely critical service.”

Rapez-Betty acknowledged it could become hard to keep offering that service if drivers become sick or if officials deem the transit system too great a risk to keep running.

“If we had a lot of drivers out sick, we would have to adjust” service levels, he said.

“Hypothetically, if we were mandated to shut the service down, we would work with the decision-makers to do that. … But I don’t think we’re anywhere near that point yet,” he said late last week.

Meanwhile, STA has adjusted some if its service in response to rapidly changing circumstances. When Eastern Washington University announced it was moving instruction off campus and online, STA reduced frequency on routes 60 and 61 to serve the much smaller numbers of people heading to Cheney each day.

Kate Burke, a Spokane city councilwoman and a member of the STA board, said she supports STA’s efforts to keep service going but thinks the agency should do more to ensure drivers avoid getting ill.

In an email sent Friday to STA board members and administrators, Burke suggested the agency consider suspending its attendance policy, temporarily adding sick and safe leave, adding protective shields to protect drivers and adding hand-washing stations at the Plaza and at high-traffic stops.

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Those measures cost money, though, and Burke said STA should consider dipping into its own budget or seek some of the money the Legislature recently allocated to coronavirus prevention to access the necessary funding.

“We’re going to have to spend money as government agencies,” Burke said of the effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. “We need to step up and do the right thing.”

Susan Meyer, STA’s chief executive, responded to Burke, saying “I share your concern for our employees and customers.” Meyer said the agency would discuss its operational plans at its board meeting Thursday.

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