The high price of keeping Detroit moving
Michigan has among the highest number of covid-19 deaths in the country. Transit workers say they’re unfairly put at risk.
DETROIT — Eric Colts glanced down at the disinfectant spray bottle at his side as he guided his bus through the dark, quiet city. Before the pandemic, he had loved his job, which now felt like being "locked in a 40-foot-long coronavirus incubator."
Only a few hours earlier, his best friend and fellow bus driver, Jason Hargrove, had died of covid-19. As Colts drove the graveyard shift, he imagined his friend’s last thoughts and breaths alone in the ICU.
The streets were empty. His bus was, too, except for a few security guards heading to work and some homeless people riding out the night. If one of them started to cough, Colts told himself that he was going to pull the bus over and “spray the s--- out of them.”
Most mayors have deemed transit workers essential to the continued health and safety of their cities. This was especially true in Detroit, where about 25 percent of residents depend solely on public buses.
Hargrove had been among the first to sound the alarm as the pandemic began spreading across the city, one of the hardest hit metro areas in the nation. On March 21, he posted a video from his bus that has since been viewed nearly 1 million times. He mopped his face with a tissue and described a woman who’d just coughed on him, saying, “That s--- was uncalled for. I feel violated.”
Soon after that, he fell ill. He was hospitalized as the mayor was implementing safety measures meant to protect drivers. On the day he died, April 1, seven other drivers tested positive for the virus, and more than 100 were in quarantine awaiting results.
As of Friday, 51 bus system employees had tested positive for the coronavirus and 136 were in quarantine, city officials said.
The rest have kept on working, including Colts, who made it home around 4 a.m. that morning after Hargrove died. He showered and tried to get some sleep, but his mind was racing. The public had rallied to the support of doctors, nurses, policemen and paramedics, but Colts felt he and his fellow bus drivers had been forgotten as the number of deaths from covid-19 in southeastern Michigan soared. By early April, the state was third in the nation behind New York and New Jersey.
Colts got out of bed, steadied his cellphone camera and hit record. He needed to talk about his best friend.
“He had the gloves; he had the mask. He did the hand sanitizer, the hand-washing,” Colts said. “He did it all. The only thing me and him did not do, and the rest of my co-workers is not doing, is to stay in the house. Because we have to get the f--- up every day and move this f---ing city.”
Colts thumped his chest and began to cry.
“I’m a transit operator,” he said. “I am putting my life on the line. And we [are] looked at like we ain’t s---. I’m gonna say it and I don’t care who or what anybody feels about it: All we are is a homeless shelter on wheels.”
His next shift was less than 24 hours away.
Shortly before the novel coronavirus began to race through their city, the bus drivers were worried that they were dangerously exposed. Detroit, one of the poorest big cities in America, has a population whose high rates of asthma, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease make it especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Recent contact tracing of homeless people in Detroit infected with the virus revealed that they were interacting with as many as 100 people a day, according to the city. The drivers knew that some of those homeless residents sought shelter on their buses, especially on cold nights.
Around 3:30 a.m. on March 17, Colts was awakened by a series of text messages from fellow drivers saying they were going to refuse to take out their buses until the city did more to protect them from the pandemic. Colts woke up Hargrove to ask if he was hearing the same thing.
“It’s definitely about to happen,” Hargrove texted back.
Colts and Hargrove, who met in high school, joined the Detroit bus system within about a month of each other in 2016. The pay, which started at $13.50 an hour, wasn’t great, but the job came with health benefits, and the work was steady, the hours guaranteed.
They reported around 6 a.m. to terminals packed with drivers who stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a manner that would become unthinkable just a week later. City officials, responding to their refusal to drive, dispatched two health-care workers, who lectured drivers about the importance of keeping passengers at least six feet apart.
“It can’t be done,” one bus driver responded.
“Impossible,” added another.
The health-care workers pressed the drivers for creative social distancing solutions.
“Have y’all two been on a bus?” one of the drivers asked incredulously.
“How about you do one trip?” another suggested.
“Half a trip,” a third driver shouted.
“I get the effort to make the buses safer, but it don’t make a difference. Everything is still contaminated. We’re trapped. If someone sneezes or coughs, we’re trapped. . . . We don’t get paid enough to risk our life.”
Next came Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who had been meeting with union officials and was now promising to clean and disinfect the buses at the end of each route, force passengers to use the rear door, waive fares and keep the seat directly behind the drivers empty.
“What about the drivers who still feel unsafe?” someone asked him. “Right now, there’s a lot of panic, fear and uncertainty.”
Duggan tried to reassure the workers, telling them that as many as 20 percent of Americans were going to get the virus, but for “the vast majority of them,” a bout of covid-19 was “going to be like the flu.”
“You guys signed up for a really hard job,” he continued. Other transit workers in harder-hit cities, such as New York and Seattle, were still picking up passengers. “The people of this city need you, and it’s my job to keep you as safe as I possibly can,” he said.
“From what you’ve heard today, are you going back to work?” he asked.
“It’s a start,” one driver said.
At that point, Detroit had only 50 reported cases of infection and no deaths. As of Friday, there were 6,231 cases and 327 deaths.
“I’d rather keep my life than keep my job. The new safety protocols didn’t keep my brother from dying. . . . I had people coughing on my bus. When that happened, I’d drive a little faster to get them off a little quicker.”
Reggie Glasgow II
When the mayor finished speaking, Hargrove recorded a video from the crowded terminal, where drivers were laughing and singing and hugging one another.
“It’s not our fault,” he said of the one-day work stoppage. “We have drivers that have underlying health issues, and you are looking at one. Just remember that we wanted to be out there. We had to take a stand. Once in a while, you have to take a stand.”
Four days after the stoppage, Hargrove was driving his route when a woman on his bus began coughing violently. He filmed the Facebook Live video on his lunch break.
“I love y’all, but this s--- needs to stop,” he said.
Both Colts and Hargrove’s wife, Desha, were watching his live stream from their living rooms.
“Stay safe. . . . Don’t bring me her cooties!” Desha joked.
Hargrove rubbed his face with a tissue and told her he was going to take his clothes off at the front door and head straight for the shower.
“TMI! TMI!” Colts wrote.
“Shut up, Eric,” said Hargrove, who was now smiling. “That’s my bro.”
A few days later, he was bedridden and telling Colts that he felt like he had “the flu times 100.” By this point, the virus was spreading fast. The city’s police officers, who circulated on the streets and then packed together for daily roll call, were slammed. The chief tested positive, a police captain died, and soon more than 500 officers were in quarantine.
The mayor had made the buses free to stop riders from congregating around the fare box. But the free rides were also drawing more passengers, the drivers complained. They took pictures of their packed buses and posted them on Facebook, hoping to get the attention of the city’s leadership. When Windsor, a few miles away in Canada, canceled its bus service, the Detroit bus drivers wondered why they were still going out each day.
“How many people have to die and get sick and hospitalized before they realize that it’s the buses that are transporting the virus all over the city?” Tina Rhone, who started driving in 2016, asked in an interview.
“I tested positive for covid-19 and have a 15-year-old with chronic asthma. She has all the symptoms, too — wheezing, fever, headaches. She can’t sleep she’s so scared. I’m the one that brought it home to her. That’s tearing me up inside, because I know I brought it home.”
Glenn Tolbert, head of the transit workers union, recently fell ill with covid-19. He began telling his fellow drivers in March that if they didn’t have a mask and gloves, they shouldn’t drive.
A few days after Hargrove was rushed to the hospital, Colts returned to the terminal from his morning route and found one of his fellow drivers slumped sick over the wheel of his bus. He worried that the driver was infected with covid-19 and that he would pick up a rider who had been on the sick driver’s bus. He told his station master that he wasn’t going to drive his afternoon route.
When he got home, he called Hargrove, who was in the ICU, and told him about the sick driver.
“You can’t control what other people do,” Colts recalled Hargrove telling him. “All you can do is be calm.”
Colts could hear the fluid in his friend’s lungs as he struggled to speak and worried that talking on the phone was making Hargrove weaker. He promised to text him later.
“I love you, bro,” Hargrove said.
“Love you, too,” Colts replied.
Hargrove fell unconscious two days later.
“I’m a compassionate person. I give free rides to the homeless when it is cold. But I can’t come into contact with them now. The city ignited a flame when they said everyone could ride for free. All I’m seeing on my bus is homeless and a few people going to work.”
Colts woke for his Saturday morning shift around 2:15 a.m. He ironed a freshly washed bus uniform, filled his thermos with coffee and tossed a container of chicken salad in his backpack.
By 4:30 a.m., he was rolling north past fast-food joints, muffler repair shops and billboards touting the state lottery and the King Budz marijuana dispensary. A homeless man and woman nodded off in the back seats.
About 45 minutes passed before he reached the Detroit northern limits.
“End of the line,” he called out loudly.
The homeless couple woke up and ambled off the bus, clutching plastic bags full of soiled clothes and food. A laid-off casino worker, wielding a spray bottle, hopped on the bus and gave it a 10-minute wipe-down, part of the mayor’s deal to get the drivers back to work.
Colts climbed back into the driver’s seat and steered onto the road. At his first stop, the homeless couple were waiting to climb aboard again.
“Let me tell you how this is going to work,” Colts warned them. “You’re not going to ride up and down all day in my bus.”
“We just need to go back downtown,” the woman said.
“All right,” Colts said.
In the weeks since the work stoppage and Hargrove’s death, the mayor and his staff have continued to search for ways to make the drivers’ jobs safer. Recently, transit employees were given access to the same covid-19 testing and medical monitoring regimen that the city developed in March for police and firefighters. Late last week, Duggan ordered that all buses be equipped with boxes of surgical masks for passengers who didn’t have one. He also pushed through an extra $800 a month of hazard pay for all front-line city workers, a group that includes Colts.
“I’m going to put it aside for emergencies,” Colts said of the extra pay. “I try not to live beyond my means.”
The sun was beginning to rise. A postal worker climbed on board the largely empty bus. Colts rolled past the shell of an old hotel that had been abandoned for decades. “That used to be a nice hotel 40 years ago,” he said. He glided past the IRS building where his mother had spent 30 years as a project manager.
Except for a six-year stint in Baltimore, Colts had spent all of his life in Detroit. He and his wife returned to the city in 2007 to take care of Colts’s mother-in-law when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.
He glanced at the time as it neared 6:30 a.m.
“This is when people start to wake up and get their day started,” he said. Over the next several stops, about a half-dozen men and women clambered aboard. They all disembarked at the city limits, where they waited for county buses that would ferry them to supermarket jobs in the wealthier suburbs.
“Thank you, baby,” one of the workers called. “Have a blessed day!”
“Be safe,” Colts replied.
“We don’t get the recognition and we’re on the front line. We come in contact with these people every day, and we deserve to have that recognized also. The mayor don’t recognize us. We’re out there before everyone else just like Jason [Hargrove] said — we take them to the hospital. But boy, they don’t recognize us. It’s a joke to them.”
And so it went all morning up and down Gratiot Avenue. A transit department supervisor stopped Colts on the road and asked him why the four-digit route number on his bus, which he had changed to Hargrove’s badge number, was wrong.
“I did it as a tribute for my buddy, Jason,” he started to explain before she cut him off.
“Okay, just change it back, please,” she admonished.
Minutes later, a transit police officer hopped on to make sure that everything was okay. “You’re almost at capacity,” she said. The city had imposed a new 15-passenger limit.
She told a man with a scraggly beard and knuckle tattoos to cover his nose and mouth with a mask. But the box on Colts’s bus had already been stolen. All that remained were the white zip ties that held it in place.
“Damn,” the transit officer said.
An older man, wearing a tattered jacket and knit hat, coughed.
Colts told the officer about Hargrove’s upcoming funeral, which was really going to be more of a walk-through than an actual service. Mourners would have to pay their respects in groups of four.
“With this pandemic thing, you can’t really have a proper funeral,” he said.
“Stay safe,” the officer called out to Colts when she hopped off at the next stop.
“Taking it one day at a time,” Colts replied.
He finished his shift around noon and headed home. Before he walked through the front door, he sprayed his uniform down with disinfectant. He said hello to his wife and immediately tossed his clothes in the wash.
Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.
Editing by Simone Sebastian. Video editing by Mahlia Posey. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Design by Madison Walls. Copy editing by Brian Cleveland.