Beginning Monday, all Metro and Metrobus riders will be required to wear masks or face coverings to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the agency’s chief safety officer said Thursday.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said bus and train operators asked for the requirement, as did customers on recent surveys. People indicated they would be more likely to use public transit again if passengers were required to cover their faces, he said.
The mask policy will not be enforced with criminal sanctions, Wiedefeld said. Metro has learned from other agencies that have tried to police the rule, most notably in Philadelphia, where last month officers were recorded physically dragging a rider who wasn’t wearing a mask off a bus. The viral video drew wide condemnation and prompted the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority to revoke the policy.
“We will encourage it,” Wiedefeld said of the policy. “But we’re not looking to write tickets or anything of that sort.”
Wiedefeld said Metro is trying to determine if the agency has enough face masks in stock for transit officers to carry and provide to passengers if clashes over the policy arise.
He said he is hoping customers take responsibility for themselves and consider the health of others.
“This is necessary to keep transit workers and riders safe!” tweeted Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most of Metro’s workers. “We only get one chance at a safe re-opening.”
The mask policy is just one way Metro and other transit agencies are changing the way they do business as they struggle to continue to provide service while protecting their employees and the traveling public. At the same time, the agencies are trying to ramp up service for recovery efforts while running up huge deficits because of lost fare revenue.
Metro board members discussed the dilemma Thursday, voting unanimously to suspend pre-pandemic plans and initiatives in the fiscal year 2021 budget aimed at growing ridership. Instead, the budget will be reshaped to help the agency survive and provide mostly limited but essential service until next spring, when the transit agency believes the public health crisis could end.
Board members were given a detailed look at Metro’s pandemic recovery plan as well as how it plans to deal with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue losses to close out this fiscal year and continued deficits running into next year.
Among the plans now on hold are later Metro operating hours, larger SmarTrip pass discounts and a $2 flat weekend rail fare. A 10-cent increase in the base rail fare had also been scheduled to start July 1. Board members voted to defer all the changes for at least six months.
Instead, Metro plans to go into a nearly year-long phased-in recovery mode that won’t begin to really ramp up until fall, when routes, frequency and hours could expand as D.C. Public Schools reopen.
The transit agency has no plans to restore full service, including peak-hour frequencies, until next spring, making its call based on customer surveys and meetings with federal workforce officials, business leaders and leaders in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Metro’s plans between now and then involve running enough trains and buses to help facilitate appropriate social distancing. The transit agency estimated that a safe passenger load was about 10 passengers on a bus and about 20 on a rail car, which can typically hold more than 100 people.
Metro staffers said they had been working with officials in the federal Office of Management and Budget, local governments and schools to come up with ways to keep passenger loads down. Federal and school officials are discussing splitting students or workers into groups that would come into offices or schools at different times, to help with social distancing.
Even so, board members said they didn’t know how Metro could create adequate buffers between passengers on buses, which riders say are already overcrowded on busy routes. To do so Metro estimated that it needs to keep passenger trips limited to 85,000 a day. The agency is currently operating 120,000 passenger trips daily, even with bus ridership down more than 70 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Board member Stephanie Gidigbi, who represents the District, said she has heard from riders who say they are either on packed buses or have difficulty catching a ride because of 20- and 30-minute waits. She said late-night hospital support staffers, including janitors, struggle getting home because Metro has cut hours, and she said the agency needs to better prioritize service workers in its pandemic plans.
A customer survey on which Metro has based some of it decisions doesn’t include those who take Metrobus only, officials said. They hope to get input from these mostly lower-income riders through a round of mailers.
“Bus service is an essential lifeline for those who are dependent on public transit,” Gidigbi said. “It’s my hope that [Metro] can ensure dedicated service while keeping employees and riders safe, improve frequency and offer real-time data for essential trips.”
Metro Chief Operating Officer Joseph Leader said the agency plans to redistribute buses from less frequently used routes to busier ones, which should help alleviate crowding and long waits. He also said that essential workers with jobs at hospitals or other important centers that aren’t being served by Metrobus can use MetroAccess, which is the agency’s paratransit service. Demand for MetroAccess, which is used to provide service for the elderly and people with disabilities, is down, making drivers available to fill transit service gaps.
Despite a fare revenue loss of $210 million dollars this fiscal year and a projected $421 million loss next year, Metro said it is able to close out this year’s budget and survive next year, thanks to $767 million it received in federal aid from the Cares Act signed into law in March. The money means the agency will be able to lower its subsidy request from local governments, which also are struggling financially because of the pandemic. Metro is among a group of the nation’s largest transit agencies lobbying Congress for a second round of stimulus money.
Metro board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg asked what would happen if Metro’s fare revenue losses next year were even greater than projections because of a possible second wave of coronavirus infections.
“What if the revenue pictures or forecast is actually worse in the fall?” he asked.
Wiedefeld said much of what’s ahead is unknown, which is why he wants the board to review the financial state of the transit agency on at least a monthly basis.
“We have done some thinking around that but haven’t done anything specific to that,” Wiedefeld responded. “I think this is something that the board and staff has to revisit on a monthly basis at a minimum.”
The revised budget also includes increased spending on cleaning and disinfecting, with reduced costs for other supplies. Chief Safety Officer Theresa Impastato said Metro has increased cleanings of all buses and rail cars each day after use by splitting its vehicles into groups that alternate days of service.
Stations, she said, are being cleaned multiple times a day, especially high touch areas. Operators, too, are rotating in two groups to decrease the impact a possible outbreak could have on a department or division.
One thing Metro won’t be doing, unlike the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is checking the temperatures of operators and other employees.
“We have been evaluating noncontact temperature monitoring,” Impastato said. But because so many infected people could be asymptomatic, according to health officials, the temperature tests would not work to spot carriers, Impastato said.
Instead, Metro is boosting its cleaning effort and contact tracing of any employees who fall ill. As of Thursday, 81 workers had tested positive for the coronavirus, including two who are hospitalized but in stable condition.
“We are cleaning twice as much as we did in the past, especially in our station facilities where we have daily cleaning and disinfectant activities,” Impastato said.
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