Starting Wednesday, King County Metro bus drivers will begin passing up stops once a certain number of riders are already on board, an attempt to strengthen social distancing on buses during the coronavirus pandemic.
The “temporary optimal/ideal” passenger limits are 12 riders on a 40-foot bus and 18 on a 60-foot bus, according to a bulletin to drivers from Metro director of bus operations Tim Flanagan.
Once those limits are reached, drivers should pass up other customers and the digital signs on the front of buses will read “Coach Full, Sorry.” At all other times, bus signs should read, “Essential trips only,” the bulletin said.
Metro has designated bus drivers “first responders” who should continue working unless they show symptoms. Since March, the union representing Metro employees has called for passenger limits, along with better protective equipment for bus drivers. Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 587 has also sought $2-per-hour hazard pay and a security presence on buses to tell riders “no mask, no ride.”
There are some exceptions to the new limits. If a bus has fewer passengers than the limit when a driver opens the door, the driver should allow everyone at the stop to board, even if that exceeds the limit, the bulletin said.
While passing up additional riders, drivers will still stop when riders request and should let anyone at those stops on board, according to the bulletin.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) priority seating area at the front of buses should be limited to “ideally one customer at a time,” the bulletin said. Riders in the priority seating area should be counted as part of the overall passenger count, but not passed up if the priority seating area is empty, according to the bulletin.
Once the number of riders on the bus drops below the limit, the bulletin instructs drivers to begin picking up passengers again.
ATU 587 is “pleased with the decision” to limit passengers, said President Ken Price. The union continues to call for a requirement that all passengers wear masks.
“This will not only ensure safety for all, but it would provide the essential safety that is a required protection of all of our operators,” Price said in an email.
Last week, 59-year-old Metro driver Samina Hameed died from complications due to COVID-19. Nationwide, more than 80 transit workers have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the national Amalgamated Transit Union.
Metro has declined to release a total number of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19. The agency purchased cloth masks for drivers, but has not made N95 masks widely available.
“The state does not have a sufficient supply of medical-grade masks to provide to people other than health care workers and the EMTs who are dealing directly with folks who have COVID symptoms,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said during a live question-and-answer session on KUOW Tuesday.
Passengers have been urged to wear face coverings while riding or waiting for buses. Metro has suspended fares and asked riders to board through back doors to reduce contact with drivers. Metro has also cut bus trips and hours in response to big drops in ridership as well as staffing issues.
Community Transit in Snohomish County is encouraging drivers to use an “out of service, drop-off-only” sign if buses are full and is deploying extra buses when available to increase social distancing on some routes, said spokeswoman Nashika Stanbro. With some seats cordoned off, Community Transit buses currently have an average of 17 open seats each, Stanbro said.
Thirteen Community Transit employees have tested positive and a driver, 41-year-old Scott Ryan, died after being treated for COVID-19.