“Mass transit is critical for many Americans to commute to and from work and to access essential goods and services,” the 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.”
Transit agencies across the nation are bracing for an increase in riders after more than two months of steep passenger losses and corresponding service cuts as states imposed business restrictions and shelter-in-place orders and took other steps to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Several states are in the early phases of reopening, including Maryland and Virginia, where stay-at-home orders were lifted for all but the Washington suburbs last week. The District has extended its order to June 8.
Most transit agencies are already following many of the White House’s recommendations, such as cleaning high-touch areas frequently and bus and train operator compartments after every shift. The guidelines say that telework should be allowed for as many employees as possible and that workers with health conditions who are at risk of developing complications from covid-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, should be taken off the front lines. While the guidelines don’t require employees to wear masks or other face coverings, most transit agencies have done so. Many, including Metro, now also require riders to wear them.
But other recommendations are new to public transportation and have not been widely adopted, such as the use of touch-free fare payment systems and touchless trash cans and doors. Transit agencies are beginning to use decals or colored tape — another guideline — to help riders keep their distance from one another. The White House help sheet calls for hand sanitizer and soap to be accessible to passengers at stations; however, in reality, that is rarely the case.
“Ensure adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors for transit operators, employees, and passengers in stations, including soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, paper towels, tissues, and no-touch trash cans,” the guidelines say.
The nation’s largest transportation union released results of a survey last week that said most transit agencies had failed to implement preventive measures to protect employees and passengers. The Amalgamated Transit Union surveyed more than 200 local union chapter presidents and other members and found that 64 percent said their employers had no pandemic plan before the coronavirus’s arrival in the United States.
Cuts to transit service during the pandemic reported by 80 percent of those surveyed have made social distancing impossible onboard trains and buses. Half of respondents said their bus operators lack masks and gloves. Among agencies that have personal protective equipment, supplies are limited.
Few transit agencies are requiring passengers to cover their faces onboard, the survey found, and 10 percent said their employers were paying for coronavirus tests when needed.
Transit providers have defended their efforts, saying that masks, gloves and sanitizer were in short supply in March and April but that they have moved to acquire as much as they can since then. Miami-Dade Transit, for instance, has begun providing hand sanitizer on buses for passengers.
Another federal recommendation that deviates from regular practice says areas where there may have been infected customers or employees should be closed off for 24 hours before cleaning. The recommendation comes from a broader CDC guideline for the public and is meant to lower the risk of spreading the virus, which cannot survive long periods without a host.
Most transit agencies cannot afford to close working stations, buildings or departments for an entire day.
The guidelines also suggest transit authorities check the health of employees daily, including their temperatures. Transit agencies have had different viewpoints on temperature checks.
The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority created and has expanded a “temperature brigade” that checks front-line workers for fevers. Metro considered doing so, but the agency’s chief safety officer said the likelihood of asymptomatic virus carriers slipping past detection decreased its usefulness.