Motorcoach operators in New York are in the U.S. epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo reported March 25 that more than 30,000 people are infected and the rate is doubling every three days.
As their state grapples with this crisis, operators find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Usually during calamities — manmade and natural — bus and motorcoach operators are there, shuttling people to safety. But there is little they can do to help since the strategy to prevent the spread of this potentially deadly disease is keeping people isolated from each other as much as possible.
There are fears that, without government intervention, COVID-19 will not only take lives but decimate the livelihoods of millions. Few industries are feeling COVID-19’s impact more deeply than the bus and motorcoach industry. Operators have watched nearly all bookings disappear overnight.
‘Nothing is moving’
It’s hard to predict what is next, says Cam Morris, president of the Bus Association of New York State and manager of Hale Transportation — Oneonta Division.
“I have been in the industry for 32 years and I have been through many other epidemics and 9/11, when travel basically stopped because people were afraid, but I have never seen anything like this, ever, in our industry or in our country,” Morris said.
“A month ago, when this came out, my first thought was our economy and what it’s going to do to our industry, and I’m seeing it come to fruition. In New York, nearly all operators have experienced nearly a 100% cancellation rate. Nothing is moving. Companies are taking buses off the road.”
As buses sit idle in parking lots, Morris has been anything but. She has sent scores of letters and made calls. When she isn’t doing either, she is urging others to share their stories as well. (United Motorcoach Association makes sending a letter to your representative quick and easy.)
She has coordinated a campaign to not only educate federal representatives, who are hashing out a stimulus package, about the importance of the industry but to contact elected leaders across New York, from Cuomo to the state’s Department of Transportation, about how the state can support the industry.
She was disappointed to learn that the latest stimulus package mentions the airlines and Amtrak but not the motorcoach and bus industry.
“We’re being overlooked. I’ve heard everything about the airlines and the cruise lines and, quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing about them. I’d rather hear about the motorcoach industry. When times are bad or there is a national emergency, we are the people on the front lines, moving and transporting people. We are very overlooked. They’re going to have to recognize that fact,” she said.
Unlike the enormous airlines and cruise companies lining up for corporate bailouts, the bus and motorcoach industry is mostly made up of small family businesses, many of which are multi-generational.
“We need to have the same considerations,” Morris said.
The U.S motorcoach industry is requesting Congress put motorcoaches back on the road by making available $10 billion in grants and $5 billion in zero percent interest rate loans to the industry, ensuring these monies are available immediately and easily accessible.
This halt of business has exacerbated the fee inspection issue in New York. Last year, the state became the first in the nation to begin charging $85 per bus for each six-month inspection. To reduce insurance costs, many operators have taken buses off the road and removed their plates. That option can result in a reinspection — and fee — if they have to be reregistered.
The association is working with the state to create some flexibility with the stringent requirement as the industry is trying to survive the economic fallout of COVID-19.
“We’re trying to work with New York DOT on waiving some regulations that are in place to assist companies taking buses off of the road,” Morris said.
Morris knows that, when this health crisis passes, the need for transportation will be immediate. The challenge is making sure her members are around to provide it.
She also worries that the industry’s employee furloughs might exacerbate the driver shortage problem that will make ramping back up challenging.
“We’re just trying to remain upbeat, but we are at the whim of the pandemic at this point. We don’t know what the future holds but we are optimistic that we will come through and the industry will be even stronger.”
UMA is providing updates on the stimulus package and how to access emergency funds during his week’s Town Hall meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday.