King County Metro Transit workers will now spray all bus handrails, seats and windows each night with a sanitizing solution called Virex, in response to the area’s coronavirus outbreak.
The cleaning will occur after buses are fueled and vacuumed. The spray replaces bleach-soaked cloths that Metro used Tuesday.
In a demonstration Wednesday, equipment-service worker Larry Bowles hoisted a backpack over his shoulders and sprayed the bluish fluid from back to front of a bus. The mist settled on seats, and sometimes he sprayed them directly.
The fluid, which contains ammonium chloride, smells like a diluted car windshield-washing fluid — more comfortable than chlorine or spray foams. Virex is hazardous to skin and lungs in undiluted form, and workers should avoid prolonged exposure; but when diluted for normal use, only goggles are required, a product safety sheet says. The mist dries in about 10 minutes.
As the virus outbreak continues, fewer people are riding the bus than usual during commute times, likely because more people are working from home, said Christina O’Claire, Metro mobility division manager. Midday ridership seems about average, she said.
Metro doesn’t yet have new ridership estimates, which are based of pressure-detecting mats aboard a cross-section of buses.
Public health officials Wednesday urged companies to encourage employees to work from home, to reduce viral spread in a state where 10 people have died as of Wednesday afternoon from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
But many workers can’t stay home, and Metro aims to keep serving them, O’Claire said.
To date, buses are operating on normal schedules, while transit operators and mechanics are reporting to shifts in usual numbers, Deputy General Manager Terry White said.
Metro is America’s sixth-largest public bus agency by passenger miles, while ranking 10th in boardings at just over 400,000 rides per weekday, out of about 750,000 by eight transit providers in the Puget Sound region. The agency maintains a total of 1,600 buses at seven sites, including part of the Sound Transit Express fleet.
Highway volumes have been near normal, according to the state traffic-control center in Shoreline. Some people may be switching from transit to personal vehicles, hoping to reduce exposure to the virus.
Meanwhile, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 is asking Metro to provide N-95 masks to operators who ask, local President Kenneth Price said. A few trips regularly serve ailing people, notably trolley bus 3 and 4 routes climbing from Third Avenue to First Hill hospitals and clinics.
Bus drivers can’t assure the 6-foot distance from infected people that health officials recommend, or know which among hundreds of people entering the front door carry viruses, Price said.
“Frustration is setting in, as our drivers are worried about a safe work station,” he said.
Metro says that drivers are allowed to mask up, but the agency isn’t providing any. White said the agency is following public health officers who say masks are unnecessary unless worn by someone who is sick or is a health care worker.
A few passengers are wearing nose and mouth coverings, but that’s happened in past flu seasons too. Many riders have begun avoiding handrails by using gloves, paper between hand and steel — or waiting for the bus to completely stop before rising from seats toward the exit without grasping anything.