For Community Transit bus driver Kyle Moore, there is one memory that “plays all the time.”

In March, as Moore’s longtime friend and fellow bus operator Scott Ryan was battling COVID-19 in the hospital, Moore drove Ryan’s wife and daughter toward the hospital.

Hospital staff called as they drove. They weren’t going to make it in time. 

Moore listened as the family said goodbye. 

“That’s the biggest thing that plays through my mind: Scott and the suffering he went through by himself — alone,” Moore said. “I would just like people to consider that.”

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, Kemper Development Co., Madrona Venture Group, NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

In the early weeks of the local coronavirus outbreak, Ryan became the first bus operator in the area known to have died after contracting COVID-19. He had worried about his safety at work. 

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Two Metro drivers, Samina Hameed and Mike Winkler, have since died after contracting the virus. Nationwide, at least 200 transit workers have died, unions say. An unknown number have gotten sick. 

Public transit — a system at its most efficient when buses and trains are full — has been remade by COVID-19. Ridership has plummeted and agencies have scrambled to keep drivers and passengers safe as tax revenues evaporate. Six months into the local outbreak, transit workers and riders wonder how they will be protected as the virus rages on and parts of the economy reopen. 

Like reopening schools, making public transit safe will be key to managing the spread of the virus and ramping up reopening. And like schools, restaurants and other facets of once-normal life, transit could look dramatically different if the pandemic stretches on. 

Agencies around the globe are examining ideas for safety precautions, like plexiglass shields to wall off drivers and vending machines to sell masks, and more novel efforts like ultraviolet light to zap the virus and artificial intelligence to spot transit stations with low mask use. 

“If we want to get the economy up and running again, we need to make transit available and safe,” said Dr. Jerry Cangelosi, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington.

For drivers labeled first responders early in the local outbreak, that status has outlasted what many imagined. On private transit operator Facebook groups, remembrances for drivers appear from across the country. 

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“The general public don’t see it, but we’re seeing [Amalgamated Transit Union] members dying all the time,” said King County Metro driver Kenneth Bryant. “We’re putting our lives on the line getting in these buses.”

Rules in place, but enforcement is iffy

Like so much in a pandemic-plagued world, riding the bus now comes with new rules. At agencies around Puget Sound, masks are required, seats are marked off-limits and only so many passengers can be on each bus to allow for proper distancing. 

Easier said than done.

“Many times I think my bus exceeded the limit, but it was too hard for me to concentrate on driving the bus safely [and the passenger cap],” said King County Metro driver David Reuter. “And what was I going to say? Who was going to have to get off?”

Early in the outbreak, local agencies encouraged riders to skip certain seats to keep distance and stopped collecting fares to reduce close contact at the front of the bus. Eventually, some capped the number of riders per bus and required masks, but enforcement is tricky. On a recent Sound Transit light-rail trip leaving Pioneer Square Station, one train car had alternating seats blocked off for passenger distancing, while in the next car, nearly all of the barriers appeared to have been removed. 

At Metro, about 10% of trips are exceeding passenger limits, according to June and July data from automatic passenger counters. Community Transit said less than 2% of weekday trips were surpassing its limits.

If Metro drivers stop to let riders off and more are prepared to board, drivers are instructed to let them on the bus, despite the passenger limits. Riders without face coverings are not supposed to be denied a ride, though some drivers admit they’ve ignored that guidance. Some passengers, meanwhile, have complained about seeing drivers not wearing masks.

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Like in businesses and on state ferries, mask disputes could be an enduring challenge. By October, Metro plans to install mask dispensers on board buses, starting with high-ridership routes, a spokesperson said. 

When an unmasked rider boarded a Route 10 bus on a recent Thursday afternoon, the driver nudged the passenger over the speaker system, saying the rider was free to get off the bus and wait for another driver who didn’t mind an unmasked passenger. The passenger masked up.

In complaints to the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), Metro operators, who also drive Sound Transit buses, raised concerns about passengers boarding through the front doors on Sound Transit buses as well as the rule barring drivers from refusing riders without masks, employees gathering in proximity at a bus base and alleged poor quality of KN95 masks provided by Metro. 

In a response to L&I, Metro described interactions at the front doors as “frequent but very short duration” and said it was working on installing partitions to separate drivers from passengers getting on the bus. Metro said it would replace any driver’s KN95 masks that fall apart.

Sound Transit and Community Transit in Snohomish County have restarted fare collection, with some Community Transit drivers saying the change happened too quickly and puts them at risk. The agency counters that riders only spend a few seconds near the driver and few riders, 4% in July, approach the driver after boarding. 

Because the moment when a rider pays the fare is often just a few seconds, fare collection is probably not the main risk of exposure for drivers, said Dr. Marissa Baker, assistant professor of occupational health at UW. But it can “create this culture of ‘it’s OK to approach the bus driver; things are back to normal,’” Baker said. Payment and enforcement could be moved off the bus to reduce risk, Baker said.

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Riders should wear masks, avoid close contact with each other and drivers, try not to talk or laugh while riding and bring an extra mask to change into after getting off the bus, Baker said.

Virus could demand more than just cleaning buses

With transit systems already in financial distress due to lost tax and fare revenue, making things safe brings a cascade of new challenges.

If social distancing remains necessary even as people return to work, more buses will be needed to transport the same number of passengers. So long as buses run on diesel, that will eat away at the environmental benefits of bus ridership. And with budget gaps because of the pandemic, those costs could be out of reach, raising the risk of full buses that bypass frustrated riders or crowd too many riders on board.

Metro has laid off 200 part-time drivers, including Reuter, citing financial losses. Metro workers protested the layoffs. Some laid-off drivers will get new roles as county health ambassadors to be stationed at high-ridership bus stops, according to the county.

The virus has taken an unequal toll nationally, with Black and Hispanic people overrepresented among those who are diagnosed with the coronavirus. In Washington, Hispanic people have been hard-hit, making up 43% of cases in which race and ethnicity is known, though they are just 13% of the population. 

About 37% of Metro drivers are Black, compared to 7% of the county population; 5% are Hispanic, compared to about 10% of the county population. As ridership dropped this year due to COVID-19, the routes where ridership remained highest travel through diverse areas of the county. The UW’s Baker has estimated that three-quarters of American workers are in jobs that cannot be done at home.

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Bryant, who is Black and drives two routes that travel through the Central District, said he worries about people of color he sees riding without personal protective equipment, knowing they are likely to have less access to health care than white people. 

The virus “could be very devastating on my community,” Bryant said. “I want them to have a fair shake on this. They’re primarily riding the buses now.”

Baker wondered if service could be restructured. 

“Can we take buses from certain parts of Seattle that are wealthier and have a larger number of folks working from home so we can up the number of buses in communities where people are still going to work?” she said. 

Learning more about the virus could also force more changes.

On transit systems across the country, cleaning buses and trains was a major focus early on. More recently, some national observers have wondered if the focus on cleaning surfaces could amount to “security theater” if it happens in lieu of mask-wearing and other measures. 

As scientists learn more about the way the virus spreads in the air, new questions focus on the detailed specifications of air filtration on buses and ways to design barriers between bus drivers and riders.

“If you can make an airplane cabin safe, you can make a bus safe,” said Cangelosi, from UW. Airtight barriers that “wall off” drivers so they are breathing different air than passengers could help, too, he said.

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Metro has about 800 partitions to install between drivers and passengers boarding the bus, at a cost of about $1,500 each, but ran into a glare issue early in testing and is now fixing the problem, said spokesperson Torie Rynning. After fixing the problem, Metro plans to install the shields on buses in the coming weeks. Community Transit also ran into glare issues and so has not installed barriers.

Metro said in April its HVAC filters would help trap droplets carrying the virus. Sound Transit is looking into the air circulation on its buses and trains, but has no immediate plans for changes, a spokesperson said. 

Local agencies have largely not checked employee temperatures, but Metro and Community Transit now say they plan to install temperature-check machines. Temperature checks are easy and worthwhile, Cangelosi said, though their benefit is limited because people can spread the virus without running a fever. 

Someday, with enough materials and lab tests, large-scale workplace testing for COVID-19 could be possible, he said.

Cangelosi and other researchers have shown that less invasive self-collected swab samples can accurately detect the virus — not just the uncomfortable tests that require collecting samples from deep in the nasal cavity — requiring less protective equipment for health care workers and making large-scale testing more doable.

“It’s certainly not the world we’re in, but the technology exists,” Cangelosi said. “Our nation can catch up, eventually, to other nations.”