Bus and motorcoach drivers, particularly those running transit and commuter routes, are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and they are constantly at risk of infection.
They encounter hundreds of people daily, never knowing which of them might be infected with the virus because they often show no symptoms.
“It absolutely scares drivers, but we’ve got a job to do and we have to do everything we can to protect ourselves,” said Anthony W. Griffith, a driver for New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and a transportation consultant.
Even so, that isn’t always enough.
“I tested positive for the coronavirus in March,” Griffith said. “I was sick for two weeks and off work for a month. I couldn’t eat, and I had muscle aches and a bad cough. I tested negative in April and returned to work.”
He’s not alone. As many as 3,000 transit workers across the country have tested positive or have been quarantined after potential exposure, while more than 100 have died after contracting the virus, the majority of them in New York City.
Union officials have attributed the high rate of infection to the slow response by transit agencies to provide drivers with protective gear. They also have petitioned for extra “hazard pay” and more lenient sick leave.
These days, it is standard procedure for transit agencies to provide drivers with personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, and to install acrylic partitions around driver compartments.
Griffith said MTA buses run at half capacity with social distance seating. The first couple of seat rows are left vacant so passengers are at least 6 to 8 feet behind the drivers.
All passengers must wear masks and enter through the rear door, and the buses are disinfected regularly. Since fares have been waived during the pandemic, there is no need for passengers to get close to drivers.
Griffith said there are times when buses get more crowded because of increased demand, such as when a subway train breaks down. In those cases, MTA runs wildcat buses to pick up the overflow passengers.
Griffith, who besides driving buses operates A.W. Griffith Transportation Consulting LLC, said he advises drivers to always wear masks and gloves, to regularly wipe down their compartments with disinfectant, to keep a window open for circulation and to close or tape up HVAC vents, “because the air is carried forward from the back of the bus.”
Despite such precautions, things can sometimes get out of hand. There have been cases of unruly passengers refusing to wear masks or keep away from other riders.
“The main thing right now is how to keep everyone safe,” Griffith said. “The drivers have to take care of themselves because some people don’t get social distancing.”
Griffith is a familiar face at the United Motorcoach Association’s annual EXPO. He’s won numerous driver awards.
Driver safety hasn’t been a major issue for motorcoach operators that offer charter and tour services because those companies have pretty much been shut down since March.
But there still are some motorcoach operators around the country that contract to offer transit or commuter service for government agencies or private companies. Many of them transport health care workers, government employees and members of the military.
Academy Bus operates motorcoach commuter service in several areas of the country. They do all they can to keep both passengers and drivers safe, including disinfecting its buses between runs. Academy also provides disinfectant wipes to passengers, requires drivers and passengers to wear masks, installed driver partitions and requires socially distant seating, said Tim Wilson, general manager of Academy’s Capitol Heights, Maryland, terminal.
Wilson said drivers arriving at the terminal are required to stay at least 6 feet away from the dispatcher, and the company has removed all but a few tables from the driver lounge.
He said the company transports essential government employees from Maryland to Washington, D.C., and back on a reduced schedule. It operates 29 schedules on three routes.
“Our drivers are all doing well,” Wilson said. “None have been infected with the virus.”
Plan for going forward
For motorcoach tour and charter companies with little to no business, driver safety isn’t their top concern. As one operator put it, “The first order of business in protecting drivers is having business to protect them from. I don’t see much of that happening until September.”
Until business returns to some semblance of normalcy, operators need to focus on reopening strategies, Griffith said. “They need a plan for going forward.”
With hurricane season approaching, some operators might need to ramp up quickly to help evacuate people from the path of storms. Motorcoach operators have long been relied on to transport people and deliver supplies in the face of natural disasters.
Griffith said he has been talking with operators around the country about preparing for the “new normal.”
“We need to be in a position to determine what the new normal should be,” he said.