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Metro’s coronavirus recovery plan shows full service not likely to resume until next spring

Commuters get off a train wearing masks in the Metro on April 24.
Commuters get off a train wearing masks in the Metro on April 24. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

Metro’s coronavirus recovery plan doesn’t anticipate a return to pre-pandemic levels of service until next spring. Instead, the transit agency plans to slowly ramp up service and will ask the region’s employers to limit daily commuters by staggering work schedules and encouraging telework.

The plan, to be presented to the agency’s board Thursday, outlines how public transit will look once state and local officials begin lifting stay-at-home orders and other restrictions. Service levels will gradually increase over the course of a year and the plan relies heavily on elected leaders, federal officials, military brass and chief executives to keep passenger numbers low so rail cars and buses don’t become dangerously crowded and worsen the spread of infection.

Customers shouldn’t expect any major service improvements over what is available now until at least fall; Metro plans to keep the same reduced-service schedule until the start of the school year.

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“We would revisit that in the fall-slash-winter, dependent upon what’s happening on the ground and what we learned at that point,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said. “Full recovery, we don’t anticipate till the spring of next year.”

And for those looking forward to the extended late-night hours approved by the board and scheduled to start July 1: Those plans have been shelved until the system is back operating at pre-pandemic levels.

For now, Metro is making the protection of its employees, including train operators, bus drivers and station managers its top priority.

“What’s driving our recovery plan first and foremost is the safety of our employees,” Wiedefeld said. “And then the safety of our customers. And that will drive what we can do, when we can do it. Part of that is capacity driven and obviously making sure everyone is safe.”

To help accomplish those goals, Metrobus riders will continue to board through the rear doors and ride free since there is no way to safely collect fares without exposing bus operators to passengers. Front-door boarding and fare collection tentatively could resume next spring, when all-door fare collection might also be available through SmarTrip card targets Metro is planning to install.

Metro will try to limit passengers onboard buses and rail cars to levels that will allow for the recommended six feet of social distancing between riders. In a rail car that can hold more than 100 passengers, that would mean about 20 people. The agency plans to put markers on platforms and vehicles to help customers keep the proper distance.

Monitoring passenger levels will be critical each day, as will other factors outside Metro’s control including when infections and hospitalizations peak in the area. Metro’s statistical models say that could run anywhere from next week into July.

On rail, passengers can expect 15- to 20- minute waits to diminish to 7.5 to 10 minutes on all lines until spring, when the agency hopes to restore peak service. The 19 stations the transit authority closed last month because of the pandemic will be brought back on line gradually in the fall.

The key, Metro officials said, will be to stay ahead of the demand for transit by providing enough vehicles and frequency to ensure safe social distancing onboard until the region reaches a level of herd immunity or until a vaccine becomes widely available.

Once that occurs, the question becomes whether there will be a second wave of infections; whether communities within Metro’s jurisdictions experience surges and recoveries at different times; and when a cure or vaccine will become widely distributed.

“Restoration timing depends on all of the above,” a draft of the plan says. “But we have to predict when it will happen in order to be ready with appropriate service.”

The agency will continue many of the practices it is using, including the sanitizing of driver compartments after every shift. As of Saturday, 81 Metro employees out of its workforce of more than 12,000 have tested positive for the coronavirus. Twenty-five of those who have fallen ill are bus operators; the workers who have contracted covid-19 are mostly those who work among the public including transit police, train operators and station managers.

Metro’s post-pandemic recovery plan includes a phased-in return to full service

Dictating how the public uses Metro will not be easy. Over the past two months, aided by stay-at-home orders and the public’s fear of the coronavirus, Metro has purposefully discouraged riders. The agency continues to stress that use be limited to essential trips. The system has cut back its hours, frequency of service and routes. As a result, ridership has plummeted by 94 percent on rail and 70 percent on Metrobus when compared to similar days before the pandemic.

The transit agency wants the public to know that it cannot just “turn a switch on” and have the system return to the high levels of service it ran in February.

Work schedules and employee availability, which are negotiated with Metro’s unions, are among the reasons. Nearly 4,000 employees will need to select new assignments based on seniority, according to union contracts, Metro said.

Metro, in partnership with the District, Virginia and Maryland, plans to send out messages to the region’s employers — including the federal government, the area’s largest — to come up with plans to limit the number of workers who need to use public transit, Wiedefeld said.

Metro has been collaborating with the federal Office of Management and Budget on guidance for transporting federal workers. Ideas include splitting the workforce and alternating days when employees are called into the office.

“Metro cannot do this alone,” Wiedefeld said. “We need the support of the entire region, particularly from the workforce perspective, as we start to come out of this. Obviously, we cannot just start up immediately. It will take time to do that. And I’m sure many businesses will be in the same place.

“So we just want to make sure that we work hand-in-hand with, obviously, the health professionals, but also the businesses in the region and the federal government workforce to meter or manage the workforce entry back into the system.”

Wiedefeld said he is working closely with elected leaders including D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) as a member of the District’s recovery task force. Metro is also working with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and its own board members to communicate the transit system’s need for cooperation with local governments. He also serves on a national panel of transportation chiefs organized by the American Public Transportation Association to develop and communicate national strategies.

Metro recommends riders wear masks to prevent spread of coronavirus

The task force and Metro have been closely watching European transit systems, including London’s, that are further along in recovery than the United States.

Much also depends on whether schools reopen in the fall. More than 30,000 students are part of a District program that provides free unlimited SmarTrip cards, and that’s the biggest reason Metro believes significant demand on the system will not start until at least fall.

“A lot is dependent upon what’s happening, whether schools will be open, not open, for instance,” Wiedefeld said. “And then we get into what we’re calling a ‘managed reentry’ . . . That’s where you would start to see more and more rail service capacity being put out in the system, as well as additional bus routes being added onto the system and then eventually the final recovery, which we anticipate right now, most likely [taking place] after the first of the year into the spring of next year.”

Until schools reopen, the transit agency plans to expand needed construction work to take advantage of low passenger levels. It has already announced a summer-long shutdown, starting Memorial Day, of all stations west of Ballston, for its platform rebuilding project. The Silver Line also will be shut down to begin work to incorporate its second phase into the system.

The agency now plans to add even more construction work over the next few months. It is proposing a rolling shutdown of stations from Fort Totten to Navy Yard to work on rail segments along the Green and Yellow lines. Stations would be shuttered on an alternating basis for one to two weeks between June 7 and July 3.

Metro is moving aggressively on construction work, anticipating that it will take months for the region to begin getting back to normal once coronavirus infections slow. Surveys the agency has conducted have shown that 90 percent of respondents say their employers have given them no clear indication if or when telework might end.

But Wiedefeld said the agency will remain flexible as the next year to 18 months are unpredictable.

For many ‘essential workers,’ public transit is a fearful ride they must take

Metro’s customer surveys show riders view transit as riskier than going to grocery stores and that they expect everyone to be wearing masks, which the transit authority recommends but doesn’t require. To address those concerns, Metro officials said they plan to both increase cleaning and make it more visible.

Metro also is testing a touchless fare card system and new “flex” monthly or weekly fare plan that would benefit those who telework more. New plans will be rolled out gradually, while Metro’s newest fare boxes are already touch-free and require just a quick wave at a target.

“It will take some time,” Wiedefeld said of the recovery efforts. “That’s why we also have limited capacity that we’re putting out there, because literally between the workforce and the demand, it isn’t there right now, and we don’t anticipate that in the near future as this gradually starts to open, like every aspect of our lives.”

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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