COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Public transit is the form of transportation many Ohioans depend on to get around and right now the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) says its service is for essential travel only.
COTA defines essential travel as going to an essential job, going to a healthcare appointment and getting food and necessary items from grocery stores.
“If you need to go to the grocery store, or you need to go to a pantry, absolutely get on the bus,” COTA spokesperson Jeff Pullin said. “If you need to go to the pharmacy, or you need to go to your doctor’s appointment, get on the bus. If you need to go to work as an essential employee as well, you need to get on the bus. But if you don’t need to do any of those things, you need to stay at home for now.”
The organization has reduced the number of routes it is running and consolidated service in areas that have shown the highest demand. This has taken many buses out of the suburbs.
Additionally, COTA has put restrictions in place for the health and safety of its riders and drivers.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize that our public transit workers are frontline workers in this crisis,” Pullin said. “That is why it is important that you only get on these transit vehicles when you absolutely need to.”
No more than 20 passengers can ride a bus at any time and if a bus has 20 passengers, the driver will pass a bus stop. In this scenario, another bus will be dispatched to pick up the riders waiting at that location.
When embarking or disembarking the bus, riders will do so from the rear entrance and all fares have been waived at this time. This keeps riders away from drivers and limits contact.
Finally, all buses are sanitized multiple times daily. Every twelve hours the bus is wiped down and disinfected. In addition, buses will be stopped mid-route to be wiped down by a field crew.
The field crew, donning protective gear of their own, will wipe down all commonly touched surfaces like railings, hand holds, cords, doors and windows. The crew will then make a note of which bus they disinfected.
Riders say they have noticed the steps being taken and comment that they are a minor inconvenience in many cases. Older adults say they have difficulty getting in and out of the bus at the rear door, especially if they are pulling a cart along with them.
For the most part, riders are appreciative of the steps and say when they are around other riders who are not taking steps to prevent the spread of illness, like coughing into their elbow, or sanitizing their hands after coughing into them, they are uneasy.
One rider said she got up and moved away from one woman who was openly coughing and not covering her mouth at all on the bus.
Such activity was highlighted in a Facebook post by Detroit public transit driver Jason Hargrove about two weeks ago.
Hargrove took to Facebook with a strongly worded rebuke of the woman and her behavior. Within the past few days, Hargrove died from coronavirus.
Unions that represent transit workers are getting close to reaching their limit on what they will allow to continue.
On Friday afternoon, unions representing transit workers in several states including Ohio gave an ultimatum. Many of the things they are demanding is already being done by COTA.
“Our operators are allowed to wear masks and we also provide gloves for them,” Pullin said. “That is also at their discretion.”
For now, COTA has not seen the kind of sickness and death other transit authorities have seen in places like New York where at least 10 drivers have already died from the coronavirus.
In the meantime, public transit continues in Columbus with restrictions in place. COTA says it is always evaluating the situation and will make adjustments as necessary to meet the safety and transportation needs of their drivers and the public.
“Without public transportation, we don’t have access for a lot of people to food, a lot of people don’t have access to healthcare and a lot of people don’t have access to their jobs,” Pullin said. “We need to be providing this service but everybody who does not need to be on the bus needs to stay off of it.”