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Metro ridership increases as agency begins restoring service to pre-pandemic levels

Riders wait to board a train at the Silver Spring station on Thursday. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this story incorrectly included employees at federal courts among government workers being told to return to their offices, based on information from a spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees. A courts spokesman said a small number of employees are working out of courthouses because their jobs cannot be done remotely.This version has been corrected.

Daily ridership during Metro’s first week of nearly normal service in five months was up by several thousand, according to preliminary agency statistics.

Ridership remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels, but the consistent daily increases show that more Washington-area residents are venturing out and resuming normal activities.

The gains come as the Washington region is once again seeing a steady decline in reported coronavirus cases, but the dangers of the pandemic remain significant, locally and nationally. On Friday, Metro reported its first death of an employee from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — a Rail Operations Control Center manager who had been hospitalized for several weeks — and bus and rail operators remain concerned that added passenger loads could increase their risk of infection.

Metro loses first employee to covid-19

Metro recorded 68,000 passenger trips Monday, about 5,000 more than the previous week. Tuesday had 8,000 more trips than the previous week for a total of 73,000. On Wednesday, trips were up 7,000. By the end of the week, ridership jumped by 13,000 on Thursday and 10,000 on Friday, for a total of 74,000 trips each day.

Metro officials cautioned not to make too much of the increase, saying ridership typically increases this time of year as summer winds down and people return to school and work. But some riders and transit advocates say the increase appears to be driven by more casual riders — those looking to get back to the rhythms of normal life after months essentially in lockdown.

With a vaccine or effective treatment for the coronavirus still months away, many have decided it’s time to expand their lives beyond the confines of home.

James Toupalik said he returned to Metro about a week ago for the first time since March. The 36-year-old Columbia Heights resident works at a Target within walking distance of his home.

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An avid reader, Toupalik said he rides Metro occasionally to shop, attend church and visit bookstores, something he hadn’t been able to do until stores recently began reopening and expanding hours.

“It wasn’t so much needing to use [Metro],” Toupalik said Wednesday, adjusting his mask while riding the Green Line to a bookstore. “It’s just a lot of places that I wanted to go to, you know, they were either closed or they closed because of reduced hours.”

The desire for a new tome to thumb through was balanced by Toupalik’s concerns about catching the coronavirus, but he said he felt secure on Metro.

“It isn’t too bad so far,” he said. “As you can see, it’s not very busy. So it’s really easy to separate yourself and everything.”

Passengers onboard Toupalik’s older-series rail car were spaced out by at least a row, and it was about a third full. Everyone wore masks, and riders included a mix of those in construction gear, shirts and ties, and typical casual attire for a warm summer day.

Trains on other lines ranged from nearly empty to Red Line cars between Farragut North and Metro Center that had more than 50 people, who occupied every row.

As a physical therapist, Josh Ripp is an “essential worker,” so he has ridden Metro throughout the pandemic. He said the increased service helps him feel more secure.

He no longer needs to calculate to the minute when he needs to leave work to catch a train, and he doesn’t worry as much about whether there will be enough room for social distancing.

“I’m never going to have to plan out, ‘What if I miss the Metro and I have to wait an extra 15 minutes.’ It’s definitely easier now that I can just leave at a normal time and don’t have to worry about super long waits,” said Ripp, 25, who commutes from North Bethesda into the District.

“Actually, now it’s kind of nice,” he said as he waited for a Red Line train last week.

The push for safe service

Metro accelerates plan to return service to normal as federal workers return to offices

Metro has more than doubled the number of trains available since service was significantly curtailed in mid-March when the pandemic hit the Washington region. Agency officials said they wanted to protect their employees by limiting contact with the public, and they discouraged use for all but essential travel.

Initial recovery plans called for a gradual return to normal, and full service was not expected to resume until spring — or until a vaccine was discovered. But government plans to return more federal workers to their offices and the possibility of D.C. Public Schools reopening this fall pushed the agency to accelerate its schedule. D.C. school officials have since said that the academic year will start with all-virtual learning.

Federal workers have been slowly coming back since July, under pressure, unions that represent them say, from the White House, which also wants schools reopened and workplaces functioning so the economy can rebound, even as the nation’s death toll from the virus mounts.

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The influx of federal workers was one reason Metro chose last weekend to restore regular service hours.

Tim Kauffman, a spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees, said agencies requiring workers to return to their offices include FEMA, other Homeland Security agencies, the Office of Personnel Management and federal courts.

So stations that had been shuttered to discourage use were reopened, and scheduled weekday trips were upped to 1,200. Four Orange Line stations west of Balls­ton that are undergoing platform reconstruction remain closed but are expected to open by Labor Day.

Metro officials said about 90 percent of rail service cuts have been restored and wait times are nearly equivalent to what they were before the pandemic.

Metrobus riders will see a similar increase this upcoming week when service resumes or expands on 174 routes.

Based on a preliminary analysis of the data, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the two extra hours of service may have resulted in an additional 2,000 trips a day, while the reopening of the Silver Line, which had been closed since Memorial Day for testing, also was likely to have resulted in an increase in riders. He said there generally is a surge in ridership this time of year as people return from vacations and prepare for fall.

“Ridership starts to rise in the middle of the month, and the pace quickens as schools reopen and vacations end,” he said. “That trend is likely happening this year, too, albeit with only 1 in 10 customers.”

Still, the anecdotal evidence is encouraging, he said, showing that riders will return to transit as the region continues to push toward recovery.

D.C. Public Schools will start the academic year with all-virtual learning

Metro said it has stepped up cleaning and sanitization — both to account for additional riders and instill confidence in its customers. Making cleaning more visible and frequent was one of the goals outlined in the agency’s recovery plan, and high-touch areas in stations are being wiped down more while a UV cleaning method is being piloted on escalator handrails to keep them clean longer.

Andrew Kierig, chair of Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council, rode Metro on Thursday and noted a difference.

“Today also felt cleaner,” he said. “That was a good sign.”

The hand sanitizer dispensers and free masks Metro has pledged to provide, however, were not visible at stations last week.

Stessel said the hand sanitizer stations required a design tweak before they could be installed. He said they could be available at about 130 station entrances in five to seven weeks.

Meanwhile, 500,000 masks donated to Metro from the Federal Transit Administration are being individually wrapped for handout. Stessel said the first 175,000 masks are expected back by the end of the month and should be available in rail stations and major bus terminals just before Labor Day.

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Kierig said he didn’t understand why Metro was wasting time and money having the masks wrapped when other organizations are handing them out in paper bags. Metro officials said wrapping them is essential to making sure they’re not contaminated. Stessel said Metro Transit Police officers are carrying some masks to hand out, but overall, most riders seem to be bringing and wearing their own.

One of those riders, Rebecca Cary, chose Wednesday to finally venture into her office for the first time since it shut down in mid-March. Cary, 37, an attorney for the Humane Society of the United States, lives in Silver Spring, where she has been working from home, and does not have a car.

“It was simply that I just really needed something that was in the office that I couldn’t put off any longer,” she said as she sat down in a seat near the door.

Cary said she had ridden Metro only once since mid-March, an experience she called “touch and go” because of her fear of catching the virus.

Last week, she put her confidence level at “medium” as she rode in a half-full car.

“Overall okay,” she said through her pink mask. “Especially because it’s not crowded, and I’m less concerned than I initially was. . . . Overall, it seems fine, and it seems a little cleaner this time around than when I took it the last time in March.”

Metro doubles service as region tries to bounce back from pandemic, but will riders be there?

Alex Karner, a professor of transportation and regional planning at the University of Texas, said this is a crucial moment for transit agencies. They face budget challenges while making investments to keep their employees and customers safe.

But the pandemic also provides an opportunity for them to demonstrate their value by providing safe and reliable service, he said. That will go a long way toward winning back riders and earning new ones.

What passengers are looking for now is to get in and out of stations, buses and trains as quickly as possible, and that should be transit agencies’ priority, Karner said. Yes, that’s something riders have always wanted, but it’s especially important now because more time spent indoors among others increases the risk of being exposed to the virus.

“If we’re interested in getting people back on public transit, then I think the only way to do it is to make public transit [a mode of transportation] that is attractive,” Karner said. “I don’t mean WiFi onboard, flashy paint on the sides.

“What people care about most from public transit is that it gets them where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time. It comes frequently, you know, it’s like something that they can depend on. So focusing long term on finding dependable, reliable public transit as a way to make something, a system that will work for all kinds of different folks, whether they have options or not.”

Coronavirus news in D.C., Virginia and Maryland

The latest: More than two years into the pandemic, covid cases in the D.C. region are rising again, , while liberal Montgomery County asks who deserves credit for its robust covid response. Meanwhile, Black funeral directors still face a daunting amount of deaths from covid and the omicron wave has had an unequal toll in the DMV.

At-home tests: Here’s how to use at-home covid tests, where to find them and how they differ from PCR tests.

Mapping the spread: Tens of thousands have died in the local region and nationwide cases number in the hundreds of thousands.

Omicron: Remaining covid restrictions in the D.C.-area, plus a breakdown of variant symptoms and mask recommendations.

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