On a sunny morning in September, Tremont resident Gail Cox gets ready for work, puts on her mask, and walks past a busy construction site to get to her bus stop on West 25th Street.
She gets on the mostly empty bus—with about four other people, also wearing masks—flashes her pass to the masked Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) driver waiting behind an open vinyl curtain, and sits down for her commute to her cashier job at a store in downtown Cleveland.
Cox says she’s glad to have the bus option for her commute because otherwise she’d be walking for almost an hour, but at the same time being on public transit during the COVID-19 pandemic does concern her.
“People are still not wearing their masks all the time,” she says. “They have it when they get on the bus and then they take it off.”
Masks are required on all public transit in Ohio, but it’s up to the individual public transit authorities to encourage riders to wear them. And for thousands of essential workers and other daily commuters like Cox, public transit is their lifeline to get to work, school and elsewhere, even when they feel like they’re risking their health by riding.
Various studies and other pieces of evidence from the past six-plus months have shown that public transit is not a big transmission point for COVID-19, as long as vehicles are being cleaned, and people are wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from each other, among other safety protocols.
Still, that hasn’t stopped many from eschewing public transit entirely. RTA has seen a significant drop in its ridership, down about 56% in August 2020 compared to the RTA’s ridership in August 2019, says Joel Freilich, director of service management for RTA. He said part of this is due to many losing their jobs, or changing to working from home, although an unofficial survey from the Clevelanders for Public Transit advocacy group points toward many feeling uncomfortable with riding the transit system due to worries about safety.
Freilich, 64, says the RTA has taken a number of steps to protect riders and drivers alike, and said he feels safe riding it daily when he goes to work.
For one, masks are required for all employees, and for customers while riding and waiting for transit. RTA also has given away more than 7,000 masks at distribution events as of late September.
Second, the transit system disinfects its vehicles every 24 hours, a practice that started in early March. Finally, vinyl barriers were installed in May to provide a protective barrier between bus drivers and riders—although when Cox was riding the bus in mid-September, the driver had the vinyl curtain pulled open.
Freilich says he believes most riders are in fact wearing masks, based on his observations during his daily rides.
“Mask compliance is high; of course, it’s not perfect, it’s not perfect anywhere, but it is high,” he says.
Not all riders feel the same. Terry Ross, who used to occasionally ride the bus between Cleveland’s east side and downtown, says he stopped riding the bus altogether because of a lack of mask compliance. At the age of 70, the retired business owner feels like public transit is no longer worth the risk.
“I might get on the bus at one stop, and everyone’s wearing a mask,” says Ross. “And then at the next stop, everyone gets on without it.”
Ross says he wishes that RTA would do more to enforce mask wearing and protect riders. Linda Krecic, spokesperson for the RTA, said the RTA is not able to “enforce” the mask mandate, but said the RTA is doing its best to encourage mask wearing with signage.
The chair of Clevelanders for Public Transit, Chris Stocking, suggested that the RTA place mask dispensers on the buses and trains, or at RTA’s terminals and stops, to ensure everyone has access to a mask, instead of forcing drivers or other RTA workers to enforce that mandate.
Another idea that could protect riders and drivers: Changing the fare collection system. Stocking says that switching the boarding of buses to rear-door entry only would keep riders away from the driver and reduce at least one contact point.
So far, Freilich and Krecic say they’re not aware of any COVID-19 cases traced back to people riding the RTA system. However, as of late September, RTA confirmed 37 cases of COVID-19 among its roughly 2,300 employees—15 of whom were drivers of RTA vehicles (no one died of the disease).
Freilich says RTA has “no evidence” that the employees who were exposed to COVID-19 contracted the virus while working. On the contrary, Freilich argues that since there was an even balance of employees getting the coronavirus—drivers versus those in more administrative functions at RTA—it suggests that physically being present on the RTA vehicles isn’t a greater risk factor.
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets, including The Land. Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America; Sydney Kornegay is a freelance reporter. You can email Conor at [email protected], or email Sydney at [email protected].
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