The people who drive Seattle-area buses are grappling with a duty they never imagined, as “first responders” to a coronavirus pandemic.

While most people hunker down, transit is designated an essential service.

So essential, in fact, that even if bus drivers are exposed to the novel coronavirus, Metro instructed those who don’t show symptoms to continue working.

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“For Metro, our mission-critical (level 1) employees, such as operators, are considered first responders,” said an operations bulletin March 26 from General Manager Rob Gannon. “First responders who have been exposed to COVID-19, but do not have symptoms, are expected to report to work because of their essential function.”

However, people in high-risk categories, such as those older than 60 or with an underlying health condition, are strongly encouraged to stay home even if they have no symptoms, the bulletin said.

Generations of bus drivers have worked near hundreds of passengers on their daily routes — and some sanitize their work spaces each flu season. But the worldwide respiratory disease outbreak, suspected of killing an Everett-area transit operator last week, has rattled many drivers and has them calling for more protection.

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“Our operators are out there feeling a little scared, and afraid, out there by themselves,” Kenneth Price, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, said.

Gannon said Thursday that Metro placed a large order for a variety of protective masks that should arrive soon. That move comes four weeks after the county rebuffed the transit-worker union’s request for N-95 masks, amid health-agency comments only health-care workers needed those, and supplies were limited.

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Two front-line supervisors, Rod Burke and Fredrick Coats, publicly called this week for stronger action by Metro.

“Requests for safety measures seem to disappear into a bureaucratic haze, while operators and front-line supervisors are expected to continue working normally, as if nothing has changed, just ‘cowboy through it,’ ” Burke said. “There’s a lot of talk about safety, but not much action, as usual.”

Upon hearing Thursday about the mask order, he commented, “They’re slowly evolving into this stuff, because we’re pushing.”

Gloves and sanitizer are the only personal protective equipment (PPE) widely available for Metro staff, several workers said in interviews.

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If drivers are truly first responders, Metro should provide masks, body temperature checks and/or testing for the virus, Coats said.

“The first thing we need to do is find out who is job worthy and who is not, and not have them infect the others,” he said.

Coats, who has worked 39 years at Metro, says he wrapped yellow tape March 19 across the front section of a bus, so riders would board in back, limiting driver exposure.

Metro announced a rear-boarding policy and free fares that weekend, which Gannon says were already being planned. A few days later, Metro unveiled yellow “safety straps” to cordon off front sections of the bus to keep drivers and riders apart. Many U.S. transit agencies have taken similar steps.

Gannon said the first-responder designation should help employees obtain state or federal benefits related to COVID-19, with minimal hassle.

“Every day, a transportation worker comes in and serves with a great amount of commitment to the public and the courage it requires to be in service,” he added. “The message was intended in no way to say ‘cowboy or cowgirl up.’ It was intended to say this is the ethic of King County Metro, we are here to serve in all circumstances.”

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He said the final decision to continue working rests with the individual.

Scott Ryan, a 41-year-old driver at Everett-based Community Transit, died last week after worrying about on-the-job exposure and testing positive for COVID-19. Community Transit announced Wednesday it ordered masks, and will soon furnish drivers one per week.

Clallam Transit, with 100 employees, has installed plastic shields near drivers’ seats in buses that lack rear doors, and will add shields to all buses, said General Manager Kevin Gallacci. Some drivers whose routes were reduced are wiping bus surfaces and sewing masks, he said.

The Washington State Transit Association, highlighting Ryan’s death, requested in March the governor’s office prioritize transit workers for masks and other protections. In a bulk order for smaller agencies in Washington, Oregon and Montana, not including Metro, the association has ordered nearly 90,000 masks from an electric-bus manufacturer, but the order might take weeks because of demand, said Executive Director Justin Leighton.

One-fourth of Metro’s 3,170 drivers are out for reasons that include illness or high risk, the agency said. Daily ridership is down more than 70%. Current service requires 1,840 drivers, spokesman Sean Hawks said.

Some buses travel near empty, while on other routes, drivers said they’re seeing too many riders to allow six-foot separation.

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Price said Metro and Local 587 have discussed service quotas to maintain social distancing, of 12 riders per 40-foot bus, or 18 people in a 60-foot articulated bus.

Metro couldn’t offer hard-and-fast rules Thursday about whether operators should pass awaiting riders at bus stops, once limits are reached. They’re intended mainly to guide how many buses Metro should put on the line — itself a moving target. Metro on Friday announced service reductions to 81 routes, and 103 routes being discontinued. Another 34 routes remain intact, notably the A Line on International Boulevard South, the 106 serving Rainier Valley and Renton, and the 71 serving the University District and Wedgwood.

For some busier lines, trips have even been added, and Gannon said he’s considering ways to substitute freshly cleaned buses on busier lines mid-shift. That’s a key suggestion from Coats, who at age 63 is taking COVID-19 leave this week.

Metro hasn’t pressured people who are sick to continue working, Price said. King County offers extra leave in some COVID-19-related instances, but employees must first use accrued leave.

Eveline Mueller-Graf, a part-time Metro driver, said she has been concerned for her safety, and she thought Metro allowed front-door boarding for too long. Her most recent workday was March 23, when she experienced flu-like symptoms and took time off. Mueller-Graf, 63, is scheduled to return Friday.

Diane Fadden, who drives North Seattle and overnight buses, said, “I’ve been feeling pretty safe,” with extra-clean buses and a tub of chlorine wipes from Metro, though she has little sick time saved up. Fadden ordered N-95 masks online and is reusing them.

“I put on my mask when I hear someone coughing, but I don’t wear it most of the time,” she said.

At $22 for five disposable masks, the cost adds up. “But I figure it’s my life and it’s worth it,” she said.

Traffic Lab engagement editor Michelle Baruchman contributed to this article.

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