“I’m not okay,” Sabrina Lott said as she boarded a Red Line train at the Bethesda Metro station one recent weekday. “It’s just how it is.”

Lott, 50, picked out a seat near the doors and sat her backpack down next to her, settling in for the commute home to Southeast from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where she works as an administrative assistant.

Today she was lucky: The train was nearly empty, so she didn’t feel the need to don one of the disposable masks she travels with, along with disinfecting wipes.

The District resident is one of the thousands in the region who don’t have the luxury of telecommuting during the coronavirus pandemic. Considered “essential” workers, they stand on station platforms and at bus stops, nervously waiting for rides in confined spaces with strangers — prime conditions for spreading the virus.

They board thinking the virus could be lurking anywhere — on subway poles, bus seats or floating in the air around them from another passenger’s uncovered cough or sneeze.

The precautions some take may seem extreme, but they deem them essential: Waiting for the escalator to empty so there’s no chance someone will brush up against you. Carrying extra masks to give other riders — not out of generosity, but self preservation. Wearing scarves over masks.

Long waits due to pandemic-related route and service cuts only add to the anxiety.

Lott has to take a combination of Metrobus and Metrorail to get to Bethesda and back home. But because of the service reductions, a trip that used to take about an hour can now take as long as 45 additional minutes.

The Navy veteran begins her journey on the 36 Metrobus, which normally begins its fixed route at 5:59 a.m. from Virginia Avenue and E Street Northwest before snaking across the Anacostia River and arriving at the Naylor Road Metro station, where Lott transfers to the train.

With the reduced schedules, the bus hasn’t been as reliable, Lott said. “I’ll catch an Uber to get to the train station if the bus takes too long,” she said.

Lott said she’s usually among the first onboard and can pick her seat. Lately, however, as the bus goes along picking up more passengers along 44 stops, she finds herself playing a game of musical chairs for survival, trying to find the seat surrounded by the fewest riders.

“If it starts getting full, I may move to another area,” she said.

No one is offended, she said, because everyone knows what’s at stake.

Staying apart

Keeping the recommended six feet apart to maintain physical distance from others and help stop the spread of the virus can be challenging on mass transit.

Metro’s 7000-series rail cars, such as the one Lott rode in, are relatively spacious, measuring 10 feet, 1¾ inches wide and stretching 75 feet, according to the manufacturer. It’s enough room to create a safe buffer — at least with ridership so low, many riders said.

Even Anthony S. Fauci, the now-famous director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, rode Metro daily to the White House, at least early on in the crisis, according to an interview he gave to ABC.

Buses, meanwhile, can measure 40 feet long but just 8.5 feet wide, according to the builder of one model in Metro’s fleet. Those seemingly adequate dimensions diminish quickly with each added passenger. And while riders say many buses are nearly empty, those on the busiest routes fill up quickly.

The challenge for public transit agencies has been trying to maintain enough service for essential trips for those who have no other option, while protecting their workers and keeping their vehicles from becoming hot spots for outbreaks.

Metro serves a metropolitan area where an estimated 12 percent of the population doesn’t own a car, relying on public transportation to get to work, the grocery store and for other essential trips. The percentage is even higher for Metrobus customers at 55 percent, according to the Washington Area Bus Transportation Project, which has studied the region’s bus network.

Transit agencies across the country have taken different approaches in trying to balance both goals. In New York and the San Francisco Bay area, transit officials continued to run full service for weeks to make sure medical workers and others in essential roles could rely on regular service, but they have recently cut back because of worker shortages and safety. TransIT, the bus system in Frederick County, Md., recently started requiring passengers to wear masks to board. Petersburg Area Transit in Virginia shut down bus service briefly because of the public safety risk only to restart it after an outcry.

Metro has been openly discouraging riders, saying trips should be reserved for essential travel, defined as “medical providers and hospital staff, first responders, critical government functions, individuals involved in helping the community respond to COVID-19, grocery and pharmacy trips, among others,” according to a statement. The agency has backed up that message by cutting train frequency, closing 19 Metro stations, stopping service on several bus routes and instructing operators to bypass stops, even if passengers are waiting, to ensure there’s enough space onboard between riders.

As a result, rail ridership was down 95 percent last week, and Metrobus ridership was down 76 percent, the agency said.

What that looks like onboard the subway is often a nearly empty train and a comfortable ride.

“The cars seem cleaner,” said Gene Wu, an accountant with the International Association of Fire Fighters, which provides support to members affected by the virus. He said he goes into work about once a week using his sleeve to hold onto poles, with his wife’s reminder not to “touch” anything ringing in his head.

“They smell cleaner; they look cleaner. I know they’re doing their best cleaning their cars so the virus doesn’t stick,” he said.

On Metrobus, however, particularly on some of the busiest routes such as the 70, which runs north-south through the District, buses can get so crowded that some riders have to stand. On a recent ride, a woman wearing scrubs pulled a scarf over her medical mask for extra protection.

Still riding

At a stop just north of Chinatown one recent day, the bus driver yelled through her face mask at a man approaching the front door to board.

“Back door!”

Metro, like many transit agencies, has switched to back-door-only boarding for passengers to limit contact between operators and riders, providing their workers with an extra layer of protection. Of 16 Metro employees who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of midweek this past week, six were bus drivers, according to Metro records.

Bus operators are particularly at risk; train operators ride in an enclosed cab, limiting their contact with the public. A bus driver in Detroit who had posted a video complaining about a rider openly coughing on his bus died days later of covid-19, the disease the virus causes.

“There’s a lot of tension you feel from the drivers,” Lott said.

When a woman on Lott’s bus began coughing nearby without covering her mouth, Lott reached into her backpack and handed the rider one of her extra masks and a bottle of water.

Lott’s mind-set is to not “fuss” at the bus or what occurs on it but to simply adjust.

“At times like this, we have to help each other,” she said.

A general feeling among many riders is one of acceptance. They accept the service cuts because they understand the risk and unprecedented circumstances.

Baruch Briggs, 22, who works at the NuVegan Cafe on Georgia Avenue NW, said he has remained flexible, calling a Lyft or Uber when he can no longer wait for Metro.

“I think what they’re doing is technically the right thing,” said Briggs, who had just gotten off a Yellow Line train at the Georgia Avenue station from Fort Totten. “I don’t mind it. I just go with it.”

Briggs, who was planning to stop at the bank before heading to work, said he wasn’t worried about his safety because as a restaurant worker, he’s already careful about hygiene. “My hands are normally in bleach.”

Others say Metro could be doing a better job. The agency’s own Riders’ Advisory Council has criticized its tone during the pandemic, saying it has been too vocal in “shaming” riders off transit in public statements and on social media. The group said Metro should instead consider offering more service where needed. Metro says its messages serve one purpose: protecting public safety.

Rider Linda Hicks, 64, said she puts her trips “in God’s hand” but prepares anyway by wearing long sleeves, a medical mask and gloves. She works as a home health-care aide, traveling between her home in Southeast Washington and those of elderly clients. But with recent service cuts and delays, she said, she often has trouble reaching everyone.

“I know we have to look out for each other at this time, but I have to get to work,” she said recently standing on the platform at Fort Totten, on her way to visit another client.

Aman Ghirmai said he has been frustrated watching full buses bypass him at stops.

Ghirmai, 47, said he has been searching everywhere for an N95 mask to wear onboard, fearful of the crowded conditions he has experienced. He said his parents in Ethiopia call him daily concerned for his well-being, watching news reports of the U.S. struggle to contain the outbreak.

A paralegal who rode Metrobus about three times a day before the pandemic, Ghirmai said he is taking fewer trips because of the service cuts. Like Lott, he tries to protect himself by sitting as far as possible from other passengers.

When he hears a cough, he moves, at least when it’s possible.

“It’s kind of dangerous to be close to each other,” he said. “You know, people were telling me that you had to be six feet [apart]. Hard to be in the bus and be six feet. It’s too crowded.”

And yet when buses pass him by, he said, he waits. On one occasion, he said, he waited 45 minutes to be picked up.

“There’s no other transportation,” Ghirmai said, “and I cannot afford to buy another Uber or taxi service.”