The coronavirus has changed transit but UTA bus operators just keep driving

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Celia Agho is a bus operator for UTA, Friday April 24, 2020. She described to The Salt Lake Tribune what her job is like during the coronavirus pandemic.

A Utah Transit Authority banner depicts bus operators wearing Superman capes, thanking them for acting like superheroes to serve riders despite dangers of the coronavirus pandemic.

Drivers shrug that off as part of the job — but say life has changed greatly on buses in the past five weeks, from passengers quickly and almost comically socially distancing themselves to hearing some claim loudly that COVID-19 is a hoax while others show near-paranoia to avoid anyone breathing in their direction.

Also, most riders are extra talkative with drivers now, they say, seemingly starved for in-person conversation after self-quarantines.

“We all kind of come out from behind the mask, so to speak, and start talking. The customers love that,” said bus operator Mike Cumrine. “It’s like masks put a stopper on conversation. But once I start talking, people are willing to jump in. They want that social interaction that they are used to having.”

Bus operator Celia Agho hears extremes in beliefs in some of those conversations and rider actions.

“Some repeat a lot of misinformation,” she said — adding those particular riders usually are among the half or so who do not wear masks. “They say, ‘This is all a lot of nonsense and we should stop being afraid and just get on with our lives.’”

She adds, “Then there are others who are extreme the other way. They sanitize their hands after they touch anything. When you ask them a question, it’s like they feel, ‘Oh, my gosh, you just directed breath at me. I’m going to get back.’ It’s so strange.”

Agho and Cumrine say customers for weeks generally have needed no prompting to maintain proper social distancing.

“It’s kind of funny. They tend to run to the back seat. If someone is there, they back up and head for another seat that isn’t too close,” Agho said. “No one wants to sit in the aisle because people walk by. They all take window seats.”

Cumrine said, “There’s a lot of good self-regulating that goes on. They try to keep plenty of distance from each other and spread out around the bus…. But sometimes we see some herd mentality with a group of friends or co-workers who get on and want to talk to each other.”

While UTA pleads with riders to wear masks, drivers say only about half of them do. Agho said rates are higher on some routes that are busier, perhaps out of self-defense. “It’s like riders know they will be around more people in some places, so they put on masks there.”

Social distancing

UTA has said bus ridership has been down about 70% compared to normal. Even with recent service cuts because of that, plenty of room for social distancing exists. However, the agency did add back extra service on some routes that were busier than expected to allow more space.

To help passengers keep safe distances from drivers, riders have been asked for weeks to board using rear doors — unless they are in wheelchairs or cannot climb the stairs. UTA also put yellow stripes on floors marking a 6-foot distance from drivers.

“Some people walk right up to it and stretch as far as they can to drop a token in the farebox,” Cumrine said.

Most riders show transfers or passes from the back of the bus, or verify they paid using a smartphone app. UTA will accept cash, but Agho notes that drivers will not touch anything from customers — even though they wear gloves and masks — and riders must put cash in fareboxes themselves.

“One of the misconceptions is that we’re free” because riders enter the rear of buses away from drivers and fareboxes, Agho said. “But we’re not. We are accepting fares. That’s how we get our revenue, right?”

She added that she now rarely sees any sick people on buses — signs and messages from UTA strongly discourage that — but said it was not that way at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

“I had a couple of people who were seriously sick get on the bus. They said, ‘We’re headed straight to the clinic,’” she said. “I’m sitting there going, ‘OK, just stay right there. Don’t come any closer,' because their nose was running and they were coughing, and you could see the red veins like they had a fever.”

Cleaning crews

Both drivers said they are also amazed at how fast cleaning crews jump on board when they return buses to disinfect everything. When operators relieve other drivers during the day, Agho said she and others use disinfecting wipes to clean surfaces commonly touched throughout the bus.

UTA officials said the agency is trying to keep some service on all routes so people can get to jobs and essential places such as pharmacies and grocery stores. Agho says it appears about half her riders are commuters headed to jobs, plus “you’ve got the people who are just desperately trying to stay away from everything, but they have just got to get to the store to pick up milk or whatever they’re missing. You’ve got people who just need the bus.”

Lorin Simpson, regional UTA manager in Salt Lake County, says, “We’re so proud of our workforce. They have come to work every day, and they are committed to what they’re doing.”

(Photo courtesy of Utah Transit Authority) A banner at UTA headquarters shows bus and train operators as superheroes serving the public during the coronavirus pandemic.

He said UTA has seen relatively few operators call in sick — even though extra sick leave was made available to help them stay home as needed. UTA has helped them financially by keeping their hours up despite service cuts by adding training and standby shifts.

Simpson says he knows operators realize the dangers of being around the public during the pandemic, “yet they show up every day — so we’ve been able to cover the work and deliver the services we promised. We really are proud of them.”