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Metro further reduces service to protect front-line workers from coronavirus

The reductions in hours and frequency are the second in two days

Morning rush-hour commuters are sparse Tuesday on Metro's Red Line in Bethesda. Metro has reduced the number of trains and buses to combat the coronavirus pandemic. (Jim LoScalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.)

Starting Wednesday, Metro will further reduce service as the transit agency said it looks to further protect passengers, bus and rail operators, station managers and other front-line employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

The changes will shorten Metrorail operating hours and lengthen waits between trains to 15 minutes on all lines. Metrobus, meanwhile, will operate on a Sunday schedule, but with a few additional routes.

Starting Wednesday, the rail system will close at 11 p.m. daily and open at 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Officials said the shift will also provide workers time to more thoroughly clean and disinfect vehicles and workspaces.

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The service cuts are an explicit attempt to discourage people from using the transit service and self-quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic that left at least 100 people across the country dead as of Tuesday and led to the shutdown of schools, nightclubs, restaurants and other businesses in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

The transit agency has closed public restrooms, sent nonessential employees home, banned visitors from all buildings and instructed drivers to remain in their compartments unless there’s an emergency.

Also starting Wednesday, Metrobus drivers will be allowed to forgo stops if they believe picking up more passengers would lead to unsafe crowding conditions onboard.

“Bus operators are granted the authority to bypass bus stops to maintain safe social distancing aboard the vehicle,” Metro said in a statement.

Metro to reduce transit service in response to coronavirus threat

The service cuts — the second in two days — correspond with ridership being down 70 percent across the board compared with a normal weekday, Metro said.

“The changes further drawdown service to protect front line employees, while maintaining regional mobility for essential trips taken by hospital staff, government officials, and emergency responders,” Metro said. “The reduction takes into account the urgent public guidance from regional leaders, along with emergency orders to cancel events, close schools and offices, and limit social gatherings across the nation.

“Our region is speaking with one voice: Stay home. Essential travel only.”

The reduction and discouraging of riders didn’t sit well with some on social media, including federal workers, many of whom continue to commute to offices and cannot work from home.

Other agencies, including the Fairfax Connector, Virginia’s largest public bus system, continue to operate on regular schedules. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has put out a similar message as Metro, asking passengers to keep seats — and the space between them — open for first responders and other emergency workers.

But it has not reduced its subway or bus services except for a few routes that have reduced service since school kids no longer depend on them.

“‪If you can stay home, do it,” MTA said on its website. “We’re here to get nurses, doctors, child care workers, first responders, transit workers, and anyone else who needs us where they need to go. Remember: Take care of one another.”

Bay Area Rapid Transit in Northern California and the Chicago Transit Authority have not reduced service, according to their websites, while the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in the Philadelphia region has.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the transit authority is prioritizing safety above all else.

“We had a detailed plan in place for this very situation, and we’ve been executing against it for more than six weeks now,” he said. “It has served us well. I can’t speak for what other transit agencies are doing. For us … ‘The health and well-being of our employees and riders is paramount.’ ”

On Monday, Metro began a reduced schedule on both bus and rail. Metrobus began operating on a Saturday schedule with some extra routes, while Metrorail canceled peak-hour frequency. Waits between trains on all lines had been set at 12 minutes. But Metro had kept the same operating hours.

“To be clear, Metro intends to be there to provide service for essential trips in our community —- as long as it is safe and appropriate to do so,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said in the statement. “If everyone does their part and stays home whenever possible, Metro will be there for hospital staff and other heroes who need us at this unprecedented moment in our lives.”

Metro Transit police officer tests positive for coronavirus prompting police station shutdown

On Monday, Metro Transit Police closed down its District 2 police station after a patrol officer tested positive for the coronavirus. Metro said the officer began feeling sick on Wednesday, a day after his last shift before some scheduled days off. He underwent a virus test on Sunday and informed the transit agency of the positive results as soon as they came in Monday, officials said.

Health officials reviewed his shifts and interactions and determined that seven police union members the officer had met with last week needed to quarantine themselves as a precaution. Metro said the infected officer didn’t respond to many calls in the days before becoming ill, limiting risks to the public and other officers.

District 2, which is located off the Franconia-Springfield Parkway in Fairfax County, underwent a thorough sanitizing and disinfecting and was reopened, transit police said.

The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents Metro employees and thousands of national transportation workers, had called for transit agencies to better protect employees. The union said it has been demanding protective gloves, face masks, sanitizing gel and sterilizing wipes for front-line workers; masks, gloves and goggles for maintenance workers; a pandemic leave policy of up to 15 days; and free coronavirus testing.

Metro officials have said the decisions to protect employees are made after consultation with health officials.

Metro is discouraging people from using its services to attend the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which begins this weekend, saying passengers should ride only for “essential” trips and reduce capacity to ensure doctors, nurses and other crucial government workers can ride safely without fear of crowding. The transit agency warned that it could close stations near the Tidal Basin, where the annual festival is taking place, to stop tourists from filling cars.

The transit agency said it will operate trains with the maximum length of eight cars “to help maintain social distancing between customers,” while rail operations controllers will monitor trains and platforms for possible crowding. The agency said it plans to reduce and cancel track work except for emergency maintenance and inspections to reduce delays between trains.

“We want everyone to follow the guidance of state and local leaders. Stay home. Travel only if it’s essential and limit your exposure to others,” Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato said. “The health and well-being of our employees and riders is paramount, and our team will continue to work around the clock to prioritize public health and safety in Metro’s response to this unprecedented emergency.”