Warren Nickolson has two options to get to his job as a clerk at the QFC on Rainier Avenue: the King County Metro Route 8 bus or a combination of that bus and light rail. He doesn’t have a car.
The bus, Nickolson said as he prepared for his shift bagging groceries and helping customers, “means I have a chance to get here.”
Essential and exempt from stay-home orders, grocery store staff, health-care providers and airport workers are among those who continue to commute to work amid the coronavirus outbreak. Others, now working from home, still need groceries or health care.
For the thousands of Seattle-area residents who rely on transit, rides once marked by shoulder-to-shoulder commuting now bring a mix of isolation and worry about exposure.
“There are a lot less people” on the bus, Nickolson said. “They’re trying not to leave unless they need to.”
Ridership has fallen about 70% on King County Metro buses and 80% on Sound Transit trains and buses, leading both systems to cut service. But while bus loads are lighter, they’re not deserted.
Even with big declines, ridership fell less steeply on some Metro routes than others, including the RapidRide A line between the Tukwila International Boulevard Station and Federal Way, and Route 7 between Rainier Beach and downtown Seattle, according to Metro figures.
Ridership has fallen less on Snohomish County-based Community Transit and on Pierce Transit than on Metro and Sound Transit, state counts show.
After initially reducing service, King County Metro quickly restored some trips to allow more room for riders to keep their distance.
“We want to keep the transit system running,” said Metro General Manager Rob Gannon as the agency reduced service.
The outbreak has transformed the feeling of taking a bus or train in one of the nation’s fastest growing cities, turning something communal into another form of social distancing and introducing new worries for both riders and drivers about encountering the virus.
Ferry riders are asked to stay in their cars, bus riders are told to board through the back doors to avoid interacting with the driver and one leg of Seattle’s streetcar system has stopped running entirely. Riders say they are taking the advised precautions, sitting alone and avoiding touching their faces.
“The bus is meant to be something that is part of your community, that links communities together,” said Zane Suarez, who doesn’t own a car and whose employer required him to come in until Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-home order.
“It’s a way to know the people you’re around,” said Suarez, who lives in the Central District. “With it not being as lively, it’s definitely adding to the isolation.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, Kathleen Carosi heard a familiar announcement over the loudspeaker on her Mukilteo-bound ferry. The crew had spotted gray whales in the water. But there was none of the usual rush to the edge of the boat for a look.
“Everyone stayed in their cars,” Carosi said. “As we learn more about this disease, you’re trying to treat everyone as though they might be patient zero — including yourself.”
Without light rail, David Pearson would probably end up relying on Uber or Lyft to get from Capitol Hill to his job at an airline gate at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, an expensive alternative.
“It’s a serious lifeline,” Pearson said.
As news spread about the coronavirus earlier this year, Pearson remembers seeing an “eerie” photo of a person alone on a usually busy Italian streetcar. Then, on his way home during a usually busy Friday commute, “I had the realization I was the only person in the train car.”
The close quarters of transit bring a risk some people are taking care to avoid.
To avoid transit, resident doctors at University of Washington hospitals are sometimes left driving home after long and exhausting shifts or taking expensive Uber and Lyft rides, according to the union that represents residents.
Roxanne Corff, a retired Harborview nurse who before the outbreak still worked occasional shifts, feels a calling to return to the hospital. But she and her husband worry about his health. At 77 and with underlying health conditions, “he would probably die of this,” she said of the virus.
Getting to work is just one of several mine fields she is planning for if she goes back.
For now Corff, who lives on Bainbridge Island, isn’t riding the bus.
She has created a detailed protocol for sanitizing her car and herself before returning home from the grocery store and has laid out plans for how to step up those measures before and after shifts at the hospital, even staying at her sister’s instead of going home.
“I’m trying to save my health for when I actually have to go in [to work],” she said. “Because I will.”
When Roosevelt resident Andres Barragan celebrated his 30th birthday, he swapped in-person celebrations for an online happy hour. But he still had to get to his downtown office job for some work that needed to be done in person.
He relied on his usual Route 76, a trip often “packed to the brim” with commuters but now mostly empty.
He wore gloves to help avoid touching his face and sat alone. “I just try to have a friendly face,” he said.
The usually packed stretch of the Route 8 bus through the Amazon campus in South Lake Union is now only dotted with riders, said Jacyn Stewart, who still commutes to Seattle Center for some of her work at Classical KING FM radio.
The expensive Patagonia jackets are gone and the ride is noticeably quieter. Riders spread out to keep their distance. “It’s like riding buses in Seattle 20 years ago,” Stewart said.
Since the governor’s stay-home order, Stewart has been walking more to avoid possible exposure on the bus, but worries about the effects of service cuts on people already under stress.
“The people we’re asking to keep working are people we absolutely need things from,” Stewart said. “Those are the people I’m still seeing out.”