Mike Winkler, an early riser who drove buses for 32 years, has become the second known King County Metro Transit worker to lose his life to COVID-19.
Mr. Winkler, 71, who worked most of his career out of the North Base in Shoreline, died June 17 after several weeks fighting the virus, said Karla Mestl, his domestic partner.
He served as a “report” operator, responsible for knowing and driving north-end routes whenever other employees couldn’t make their shifts. He showed up at 3:45 a.m. to provide coffee and snacks for co-workers, and took the coffee grounds home for gardening.
“Some people called him the godfather of North Base, or the grandfather of North Base,” said Greg Patterson, a friend and retired Metro driver.
Mr. Winkler was known for a sheepish grin and chuckle while razzing co-workers. When Patterson returned to the North Base after a heart attack, Mr. Winkler greeted him with: “I don’t want to drive your work anymore,” because Patterson’s bus trips clearly brought bad luck.
Mestl, who is also a bus driver, said Mr. Winkler appeared gruff to some, but was really “a gentle soul and a very generous person.” He made time to chat and joke with employees at Fred Meyer stores during rest stops, Mestl said.
Mr. Winkler was preparing to retire this year. The couple planned to move with the seasons between Alaska and Montana, with their German shepherd, Ruger, she said. Mr. Winkler was a skilled marksman, Mestl said. She called him “a man with many dreams” who in years past learned to fly aircraft, moored a sailboat at Shilshole Marina and owned Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
He caught the virus about March 23, said Mestl, though she’s not sure how or where.
His death follows the loss of Metro driver Samina Hameed, 59, in April, Community Transit driver Scott Ryan, 41, in March, and Washington State Ferries dock employee Esther Bryant-Kyles, 64, in March.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) called Mr. Winkler a “front-line hero in the fight against this global pandemic.”
“Mike was a good man with a kind heart,” said Kenneth Price, president of Local 587 in Seattle. Details about a future memorial will be provided to colleagues at the North Base, said Price.
Mr. Winkler is the 56th ATU member in North America to die from COVID-19, which also has killed more than 100 members of the Transport Workers Union in New York, said national President John Costa.
The ATU and veteran workers sounded alarms in March about risks and the slow pace of acquiring personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Our drivers are at high risk of infection,” Price reiterated this week.
Metro has gradually added safeguards that include face coverings, suspended fares, virus-blocking air filters, flexible leave for at-risk workers, and social-distancing rules that limit buses to 12 or 18 riders, depending on length.
Face shields and safety glasses are now available for operators when the coach isn’t moving, and Metro is considering clear partitions near the driver seat, spokeswoman Torie Rynning said. Drivers will receive higher-grade KN-95 masks within one to two weeks, she said.
Price said masks should be provided for riders who don’t have them.
Costa said protections have improved since mid-spring, and death rates declined, but he still worries about whether the U.S. economy will reopen safely. Operator health will influence how the public returns to transit, he said.
“If we have operators dying of COVID-19 every day, would you get on the bus?” Costa said.
Metro’s ridership is currently about 30% of normal, while car trips statewide have bounced back to 86% of normal, according to agency data.