The Spokane Transit Authority will suspend fare collection, board most passengers by the rear doors of buses and offer free van rides to people age 60 and over traveling to essential destinations in an effort to boost safety on the bus and paratransit system during the coronavirus pandemic.
The changes will begin Thursday and are designed to “maximize social distancing,” according to an STA news release.
Government and health officials have urged people to maintain at least 6 feet of distance while in public to reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus.
E. Susan Meyer, the transit agency’s chief executive, made the changes through an emergency proclamation issued Tuesday.
“As a part of STA’s ongoing response to COVID-19, I will initiate emergency, temporary practices to protect the public and our employees from the spread of the virus, while continuing to provide essential transportation services to those in need,” Meyer said in the news release.
Thomas Leighty, an STA mechanic and president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1015, which represents unionized employees of the agency, said his group had pressed STA leadership to make the changes to reduce driver-passenger interactions for the past 1 1/2 weeks.
“I’m glad that they have finally caved and decided to do it,” Leighty said.
Health officials have indicated older people are more likely to suffer severe illness and death from COVID-19, the disease coronavirus causes. STA’s free ride programs for seniors would offer door-to-door service to reduce this passenger population’s contact with others.
While most bus riders will be asked to use rear doors only to board, those requiring mobility assistance will be allowed to use the front doors.
Meyer’s proclamation comes one day after Gov. Jay Inslee issued a “stay home” executive order that requires people to say home unless absolutely necessary or unless they work in an essential sector, such as public transit.
STA has taken a number of steps to continue operating since coronavirus began to spread in the state and Inslee started taking a series of incremental steps to close businesses and services and to reduce the rate of viral transmission. The agency has bolstered its cleaning procedures and closed most waiting areas in the downtown Spokane Plaza.
Last week, the agency went against the guidance of numerous health and emergency management officials and distributed a stockpile of 2,380 N95 masks to bus and paratransit drivers on a voluntary basis.
The masks are a critical and highly sought-after piece of protective equipment in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, and STA’s supply is limited for now.
Leighty said that limitation has led drivers to be judicious in their approach to using them.
“There’s been quite a few drivers who have taken advantage of wearing a mask, and I believe there are some that haven’t because they know there are other operators who need it more than they do,” Leighty said.
“We’re leaving the masks for those who need it more,” he added, because “who knows when more are coming in.”
Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s director of communications and customer service, said drivers have used about 180 of the masks.
STA’s efforts to reduce transmission while maintaining service come despite sharp declines in ridership. At last week’s meeting of the agency’s board of directors, officials said ridership on the bus and paratransit system had declined by about 50% over the previous week.
But STA officials have pressed to keep buses and vans moving, arguing they provide critical access to medical services, food and other resources for those without alternative modes of transportation.
While Leighty acknowledged some operators want the system shut down to eliminate potential transmission aboard buses and vans, he said the union stands with STA’s decision to keep it going.
“We don’t want a service cut,” Leighty said, adding he hopes the agency will do more to protect drivers.
He said the union is pushing for two additional measures. One would install plastic shields that would further protect drivers from disease transmission and assaults. Another would provide employees who do not have child care with some fraction of their pay while they are off work to care for children whose schools have been closed during the pandemic.
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