Transit agencies across the country are operating reduced service and schedules to decrease ridership and limit interaction between workers and passengers. They have canceled routes, closed buildings and stations, moved bus boardings from the front to rear doors to isolate drivers, and, in many cases, required passengers to wear face coverings.
Several states, including Georgia and Florida, have taken initial steps toward reopening. Provided there isn’t a sudden surge in infections, many states are expected to follow in the coming weeks.
Transit will be key in what the White House describes as a three-phase reopening process.
The first phase deviates little from the social distancing recommendations and practices already in use. Phase 2 would begin after health officials saw no spikes in infection rates. It calls for reopening schools, allowing nonessential travel and carefully opening large venues. Phase 3 would lift most restrictions but still recommend that large venues continue some social distancing.
“Mass transit is critical for many Americans to commute to and from work and to access essential goods and services,” the draft guidelines say. “This guidance provides considerations for mass transit administrators to maintain healthy business operations and a safe and healthy work environment for employees, while reducing the risk of COVID-19 spread for both employees and passengers.”
The guidelines include recommendations that most agencies have already adopted, such as wiping down driver compartments after every shift and requiring front-line workers to wear masks.
They recommend that transit workers considered vulnerable to hospitalization from covid-19 be restricted to telework or duties that limit interaction with passengers. They also say travel should be eliminated between offices and worksites where infection rates differ, employees should cover their faces around others, and workers should be provided with adequate personal protective equipment such as masks and sanitizer.
Transit systems should also remind the public to practice good hygiene and wash their hands often. No-touch doors and trash cans should become a new standard, the guidelines suggest, and passengers should no longer be required to touch fareboxes with their transit passes — meaning fareboxes should become touchless.
Ventilation systems should be regularly maintained to ensure that outside air is brought in, while rear bus boarding should continue, the guidelines say.
The CDC-drafted guidelines also recommend that transit agencies consider closing off every other row of seats to increase social distancing, reducing the maximum occupancy of buses and rail cars, and increasing service frequency on busier routes and lines to limit crowding.
Physical guides or markers would help riders keep six-foot buffers between themselves and others, and the suggestions include using floor decals, colored tape or signs. Station kiosks and operator compartments should be enclosed by sneeze guards or partitions, while employees should receive daily health checks to monitor for the virus, according to the draft report.
Many of the practices have been underway for weeks. The nation’s largest transit agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, is considering expanding its Temperature Brigade Program, which uses thermal scan thermometers to check the temperatures of front-line workers. More than 3,500 transit workers’ temperatures are checked each day at more than 70 MTA locations, officials said.
The MTA has eliminated cash transactions to prevent person-to-person contact, and it has instituted rear-door boarding on buses, a now-common practice that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority also uses.
Metro’s pandemic task force is considering several ways to gradually, and safely, restore full service, spokesman Dan Stessel said. The agency has said these could include ramping up service in different parts of its 1,500-square-mile service area, depending on infection rates in various jurisdictions and areas.
A subgroup of the Metro task force dubbed the “I” or innovation team has been tasked with recovery planning. Stessel said they have discussed using floor markers on platforms, trains and buses to show where passengers should stand to maintain safe distances. The group also is considering having train passengers board through doors at the end of each rail car and exit through the center door to limit passenger contact.
The changes are not just for the short term. It’s unknown when a cure or vaccine for the coronavirus will be available, so agencies are planning for the long haul.
“It’s clear those are the kind of things that need to be thought about as we invent transit for the post-pandemic era,” Stessel said. “We’re planning for a number of different scenarios, as we have throughout our response to the pandemic. We really don’t know what form the recovery is going to take.”
Metro has discussed splitting its operating fleet in half, changing out vehicles daily to ensure that proper cleanings take place on off days. Ideas are also being shared and debated with other transit agencies. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is part of a Mobility Recovery and Restoration Task Force that the American Public Transportation Association convened about two weeks ago.
The use of masks by passengers has become a topic of discussion among transit agencies and riders nationwide. Some states such as New York and Maryland require them, while other localities such as the District recommend them. Metro also urges riders to wear face coverings but doesn’t refuse service to those who don’t. In suburban Maryland, Montgomery County’s Ride On transit service requires masks, and on Tuesday, it began making a limited supply of free masks available to riders.
Buses will carry the masks as they become available, the Montgomery County Department of Transporation said. The aim is to prevent the spread of the virus but also to help drivers and passengers feel more secure.
“Transit usage has been decimated during this crisis, and riders will need to feel confident in their personal health and safety before returning to our systems,” Montgomery County Council member Evan Glass (D-At large) said. “This is one way to provide safeguards for individuals who are riding our buses today while also providing a road map for confidence-building with riders who will return when our region reopens.”
National coalitions led by TransitCenter and the NAACP are lobbying the White House coronavirus task force to provide more personal protective equipment for transit workers, and the groups, which include transit unions, businesses and transit advocates, want Congress to pass more relief funding to give workers hazard pay. The groups said at least 100 transit workers have died in the United States since the coronavirus was first reported in the country.
Virginia Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) sent a letter Monday to state Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine asking her to make masks or face coverings a requirement for all transit passengers.
“We have a responsibility to protect and advocate for our frontline workers and their families, as well as working families who use public transit,” Carroll Foy said. “Without these protections, our transit systems will serve as an incubator for COVID-19 and worsen the crisis.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.