A Metro Transit bus with signs indicating that it is under quarantine is parked on the back side of the agency's Heywood Garage near Downtown Minneapolis. March 24, 2020. Photo: Henry Pan

Amid Coronavirus Chaos, Metro Transit Allows Rear Door Boarding, Cuts Service, Neglects Operator Needs

Front Door Boarding Suspended Onboard Metro Transit Buses

After pressure from activists, last Wednesday, Metro Transit began to follow in the footsteps of other agencies who have taken preventative measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. They began to institute back-door-only boarding on many of its routes.

Metro Transit became the second agency in the State, after Duluth Transit Authority, to institute this practice. When asked why now, Howie Padilla, Metro Transit’s spokesperson said “we want to run the safest system we can, and to allow social distancing for operators and less touching of farebox.” Riders who board the backdoor don’t interact directly with the operator, reducing their risk for exposure.

You may remember that policy was “speculation” last week when I asked Mr. Padilla about these plans. Those plans are now reality, in part because of the efforts of the Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America and the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union. Last Tuesday, members of the Twin Cities DSA and TRU began making hundreds of calls to Metro Transit’s management to request that they enact this measure.

However, unlike other transit systems that have instituted rear door boarding, they are still collecting fares “The fare policy has not changed”, Mr. Padilla said. “We are encouraging riders to use preboard fare payment where possible or to download the Metro Transit app to pay for their rides.” They are also making sure people pay, to a degree. “While our officers are practicing social distancing, they may be checking fares less often as circumstances dictate.”

Also, not every Metro Transit bus has a rear door. Some express routes use coach buses, which do not have rear doors. “We are working to use primarily two-door buses on our revenue service”, Mr. Padilla said.

While activists claim victory, they believe that this must go farther. The statement issued by the Twin Cities DSA and the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union goes on to call for free mass transit, not just now, but after the pandemic is over. In their statement, they propose “taxing the rich and big business, who benefit so much from corporate welfare, but contribute so little to our public goods”.

Metro Transit Cuts Service To Save The Region

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Metro Transit released a graph showing the percentage change in ridership in the past month. The figures reported in this article are different from what is reported in the graph, because the graph appears to be last updated on March 24. Source: Metro Transit

Also Wednesday, Metro Transit cut service to 60% of weekday levels.

At the Met Council Transportation Committee meeting last Monday, Wes Kooistra, General Manager of Metro Transit, said that these reductions allow for the agency to provide more reliable service, more frequent cleaning, as well as the “flexibility to flood some routes where we still have some significant ridership [with buses]…so we can spread the ridership across more buses.” Mr. Kooistra also says that reducing service will allow the agency to respond to specialized requests, including most recently transporting those returning from a Princess Cruise to their homes throughout the Twin Cities, as well as far as St. Cloud and Duluth.

These cuts are also a way that Metro Transit is handling the ongoing operator shortage and significant ridership drop. As of last Thursday, ridership is down 61% on all bus routes, including the A and C Lines. Blue Line ridership is down 63%, Green Line ridership is down 58%, and Northstar ridership is down 91%. 

We do not know how much money Metro Transit is losing per day because of reduced ridership. “We are not speculating at this time how much revenue will be lost longterm, as it is not a situation for which we know an end date and will not be in the business of trying to predict one,” says Mr. Padilla.

The service reductions are similar to the service levels that Metro Transit usually offers on Black Friday. On Black Fridays past, Metro Transit charged Saturday fares for the entire day. This led reader Rob to wonder why weekday fares were continuing to be charged, even though weekday service was operating close to Saturday levels. Mr. Padilla responded, “Because…service is being offered on the weekday.

Switching to a 60% service plan, however, leaves some areas of the Metro without daily transit service. For example, communities west of Wayzata, including the City of Mound, has no fixed-route transit service.  The 645 is operating on a weekend schedule which does not serve communities west of Wayzata. The 671, which serves Excelsior and communities to the southeast of Lake Minnetonka before ending its run across the street from a Culver’s in Orono, is also not operating.

Mr. Padilla, however, reports that they “have not had large scale complaints about this.” He expects that “people in all of our routes are honoring the advice of the medical experts and others across the country to exercise social distancing when possible and stay home.”

What About Keeping The Operators Safe From The Virus?

A Purell wipe issued by Metro Transit to an operator in an effort to ensure operators are able to keep their work area clean. A key is used for comparison purposes. Metro Transit operators have informed me that they are able to receive a maximum of 2, 5, or 10 wipes per shift. Photo: Anonymous Operator

A Purell wipe issued by Metro Transit to an operator in an effort to ensure operators are able to keep their work area clean. A key is used for comparison purposes. Metro Transit operators have informed me that they are able to receive a maximum of 2, 5, or 10 wipes per shift. Photo: Anonymous Operator

At the Transportation Committee meeting last Monday, Mr. Kooistra praised the operators who continue to work, acknowledging that their “risk of exposure is greatest of any other essential service currently being provided.”

Back door boarding might not be enough, because the operators still do not feel secure. Yesterday, I noticed the barriers on the buses consisted of one stanchion pole mounted horizontally about 4 feet above the ground, between the wheelchair seating area and the driver, with a sign mounted onto it (see image on the bulletin, located on top of this post). Some operators noticed passengers continuing to “sit within a couple feet of the drivers.” Some drivers also believe that the barrier should be mounted in the area between the wheelchair seating area and the forward facing seats, which is how other transit agencies in North America have done so.

Aside from that, many operators have told me they are not receiving adequate protection. For example, many operators have told me that the sanitizing wipes that they receive (pictured) are insufficient. Operators have told me that they have received anywhere from 2, to 5, to 10 of these wipes per shift. A commenter named PJ said that these wipes are “almost worthless” and that they “dry up with just a couple wipes!”

Despite the complaints from the operators, Mr. Padilla told me “We are going with what we have.”

Recently, Metro Transit made a social media post responding to a rider insisting that transit operators are being offered masks. This post has since been removed.

Recently, Metro Transit made a social media post responding to a rider insisting that transit operators are being provided masks. This post has since been removed.

Metro Transit is also not offering masks to the operators. At last Monday’s Met Council Transportation Committee meeting, Mr. Kooistra reported that they wanted to give masks to the operators, but were unable to. Mr. Kooistra, speaking to the committee, said while they requested the ability to do so with the State Incident Command, “Masks are not recommended for operators in their situation, and are desperately needed by healthcare workers on the front line.”

But an operator told me of a rumor that Metro Transit’s Customer Relations department have been telling callers that operators are indeed being offered masks. I was curious, so I decided to give them a call on Thursday, shortly before I called Mr. Padilla. A person on the other end of the line told me that Metro Transit was indeed offering masks for the operators, however, the supplies were limited because they were rationing them to healthcare workers. When I asked them how operators would be able to get masks, the agent on the line said they would “do so on their own”.

Another operator told me that Metro Transit made a post on their social media accounts that they were offering masks to the operators (pictured), and that operators who are not wearing masks chose not to do so. That post has since been removed.

Confused, I decided to get some clarification while I spoke with Mr. Padilla. Twice during our call, he told me bluntly: “We are not offering masks [to the operators].” However, Mr. Padilla tells me that “If they [the operators] want to supply [the masks] themselves, we aren’t getting in the way of that.”

While Metro Transit isn’t getting in the way of drivers supplying their own masks, the threat of the virus, as well as the added inconvenience to the daily lives of the operators, are getting in the way. “Relying on drivers to make a trip to the store for masks individually multiplies exposure exponentially”, an operator told me. “I don’t usually make trips to a hardware store so I don’t like going out of my way for stuff that they should be providing.”

Operators within the agency are also expressing frustration that workers in other departments – including cleaners, mechanics, and personnel associated with the Instruction Center, to name a few – are able to obtain masks. In addition, Mr. Padilla tells me that the Metro Transit Police force are also able to obtain masks, along with other personal protection equipment. “During extraordinary times like these, the MTPD takes precautions to protect the public and its officers by issuing gloves, masks, eye protection, and sanitizing wipes.”

Not giving masks to operators could be a big mistake. As of press time, we do not know why Metro Transit Police officers were given preference to receive PPE over its own operators. Operators have told me that they are constantly exposed to riders – and their pathogens – on a daily basis. Their exposure to pathogens is in part magnified by how the ventilation system on the buses are designed. “The air circulates back to [the] front so the driver is always being bombarded with whatever pathogens are airborne”, one operator tells me.

A top Chinese scientist says that masks are vital because they can prevent the spread of COVID. “If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others“, George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in an interview with Science Magazine.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when we contract this highly infectious OUTBREAK!”, says commenter PJ.

Aside from whether or not operators are getting the personal protection equipment they deserve to prevent the spread, operators are also being allowed to take sick days for however long they need to, until the end of the month. Last Monday, Mr. Kooistra reported that they have lifted the counting of [sick] incurrence[s] in an effort to encourage sick operators to stay home. Mr. Kooistra reported 150 operators called in sick that day, which is 50% more than what they usually have.”

We do not know how many of these operators are calling in sick because they have tested positive for COVID-19. However, I’ve heard from operators say some of their colleagues are staying home because they are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. When I asked Mr. Padilla whether or not any operators – or any Metro Transit personnel – tested positive for COVID-19, he referred me to the Minnesota Department of Health.

What About The Buses?

A Metro Transit bus with signs indicating that it is under quarantine is parked on the back side of the agency's Heywood Garage near Downtown Minneapolis. March 24, 2020. Photo: Henry Pan

A Metro Transit bus with signs indicating that it is under quarantine is parked on the back side of the agency’s Heywood Garage near Downtown Minneapolis. March 24, 2020. Photo: Henry Pan

Agencies across North America are quarantining buses because of the pandemic. Metro Transit is no exception. As of last Tuesday, one bus each at Heywood (pictured), Nicollet (by the last K-Mart in the State), and South (by Mall of America) Garages were quarantined for 3 days.

“Buses are quarantined as a precaution in the event that an operator reports any concerns about coughs, sneezes or biohazards”, Mr. Padilla told me. While Mr. Padilla did not comment on why those buses were quarantined for 3 days, we do know that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can survive on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for as long as three days. Metro Transit buses are made of steel and the bulk of the seating on the buses are made of plastic.

Mr. Padilla told me he does not know what routes they were operating on before they were quarantined.

Maybe Metro Transit Isn’t To Blame?

“I cannot reiterate enough that our priority is to stop the spread of COVID”, says Mr. Padilla during our conversation last week. 

And maybe that’s true. They’ve let passengers board through the back to reduce interactions with the operators, as well as reduced service to account for more flexibility. But they’ve neglected to provide PPE for the operators.

Not providing PPE for the operators is likely beyond Metro Transit’s control. PPE is in short supply not just at Metro Transit, but statewide and nationwide. At the Transportation Committee meeting last Monday, Mr. Kooistra said that “[the State Incident Command] have asked for inventory from our agency.” Jeremy Konyndyk, Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development, told Vox that “Every serious look at US pandemic readiness and global pandemic readiness has identified PPE shortages as a major issue.”

The President certainly hasn’t handled this pandemic well. In 2018, the President disbanded the pandemic response team. The President has also made a multitude of misleading claims, including defying medical experts by trumpeting an anti-malaria drug as a cure for COVID. He has also gone as far as demanding praise from governors for his re-election campaign in exchange for aid to fight the virus, as well as baselessly accusing state governments over hoarding lifesaving and personal protective equipment that they continue to request because they are low on supplies.

John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, thinks that the President is “less equipped to deal with this historical moment than anybody in recorded history.” And because of this, those who dedicate their lives to getting us around are paying the price.

Do you have any questions about how Metro Transit is handling the coronavirus? Leave your question in the comments and I will do my best to get answers. You may also e-mail me directly: hpan0003 at gmail.

Anyone who is interested in helping make masks for transit operators should reach out to tim dot brackett at gmail.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed that the ATU Local 1005 was involved with forming the rear-door boarding plans. We regret the error.

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

About H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat. Follow on Twitter: @h_pan3 or Instagram: @hpphmore or on BlueSky: hpan3 dot bsky dot social See bylines after March 2020 in Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Racket, Minnesota Reformer, Next City, The Guardian, Daily Yonder and MinnPost.

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