16th Street and Larimer in Denver Colorado at night RTD bus MallRide

An RTD MallRide bus on the 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver.

On March 12, Mike Meader visited the office of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001 for a meeting with the president, Lance Longenbohn. Meader, the chief safety and security officer for the Regional Transportation District, told him that RTD had an order of roughly 21,000 surgical masks and N95 respirators pending for bus and light rail operators. But there was a problem.

“Both of those were canceled by our vendor,” said Meader. “And their explanation was that those were to be sent to healthcare.”

The masks, now scheduled for April 20 or later, were an enhancement of the agency’s regular order for landscaping and cleaning crews who work with chemicals. Normally, those employees use a couple of hundred such masks per month.

“The situation really hadn’t developed quite to the level where we were looking at protective equipment quite as seriously,” recalled Longenbohn. “There was talk of wipes and of sanitization and sterilization and that sort of thing….At that point, the CDC was sending mixed signals as to whether people should be wearing masks or not. That’s kind of a pattern in as rapidly as it developed.”

RTD, like other entities, has had to make adjustments to its operations based on shifting conditions and directives surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. A huge factor in the agency’s approach toward operator safety has been the evolving guidance emanating from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Some of the material that Mike Meader shared with me in that meeting — after he left, one of the things was a link to CDC’s website,” said Longenbohn. “And in the time that he had given me the material or prepared it, the CDC had kind of changed their stance on masks already.”

Initial safety suggestions

In the week after the meeting, RTD reported that because of plummeting ridership, distancing between passengers was now happening “naturally” on vehicles, so there was no need to mandate it. Nevertheless, the agency allowed drivers to block off the first row of seats on the bus.

Then on March 23, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock issued a citywide stay-at-home order for nonessential activities. A special meeting of the RTD board of directors followed to discuss authorizing weekend levels of service in response to ridership levels. Multiple directors at the time suggested changes to protocols that RTD would take weeks to implement.

Director Vince Buzek, District J, wondered about adding more buses on some routes instead of cutting them in order to lower capacity and enable distancing between passengers on board. “I would love to do that, but I think everyone understands the impossibility of something like that,” he added.

Director Shontel M. Lewis, District B, brought up the idea of rear-door boarding and fare suspension, such that passengers did not have to walk past the driver and risk infection. She also suggested “readjusting our load standards and making the public aware of that, so that we were actually operationalizing social distancing.”

In response, Interim General Manager Paul Ballard told her that “we don't really have the ability for our operators to deny people access to the service.” Two-and-a-half weeks later, RTD would reverse itself and allow such a practice.

The agency was actively engaged in planning for operator safety on other fronts — in the form of contingency plans for what would happen if operators contracted COVID-19.

“They have put together a policy that was very well-constructed,” said Longenbohn, whose local represents approximately 1,000 RTD employees and 500 more employed by one of the agency’s contractors. “If an operator was sent to be tested...that operator was paid from day one until they got the results of their tests.” However, he added, “the flaw in the plan was that it was based on testing, and testing was not happening as anyone anticipated because of the limited amount.”

Around this time, Meader wrote to WSP, an international safety consulting company that RTD had engaged since late 2019, to ask about some of the ideas Lewis had suggested. The consultant said she needed time to research.

At an April 2 study session of the board, Meader dismissed the idea of rear-door boarding, saying that passengers entering from the front doors “really isn't, from the perspective of public health, a major risk.” At the time, the CDC’s website read that close proximity combined with prolonged exposure, defined as 10-30 minutes, constituted an exposure risk.

Longenbohn took exception to the characterization of risk to drivers, saying “people don’t walk by you with a cash fare. They have to stop and stand there. The exposure is more than just passing.”

The communication from RTD to operators on the issue of safety was frustrating to some bus operators, and some told the union that they did not want to come to work.

“One of the concerns is a supervisor gets asked by an operator, ‘did so-and-so test positive?’” said Bob Dinegar, a bus driver. “The instruction to the supervisor is to direct the operator either to the safety department or the labor department.”

Operators had begun to take matters into their own hands, stringing up caution tape or seat belts to block themselves off from passengers. Longenbohn told his members that if needed to institute rear-door boarding to feel safe, to do it. Meader said that RTD did not discipline drivers who did so.

“We were saying to the drivers, if you want to wear a mask, it’s up to you,” said Director Natalie Menten, District M, “because CDC is saying right now, it’s not recommended.”

Mask recommendation prompts change

After the study session, the call for changes intensified: Lewis began an online petition asking RTD to do more to protect drivers or have the governor shut down the system. ATU Local 1772, which represents another group of contracted operators, demanded protective equipment and for RTD to use its share of federal CARES Act money to suspend fares. Then, the WSP consultant rendered her verdict.

“I recommend, based on current Covid-19 conditions and the potential for transmission to Operators, that RTD institute rear-door boarding,” wrote Lurae B. Stuart to Meader on April 2. 

The next day, RTD agreed to the policy. Meader said that Stuart’s email was part of his change of heart.

“Really the biggest thing was not necessarily that recommendation,” he said. “What helped was information from the CDC and the public health about the large number of asymptomatic people they’re finding that are positive for the virus.”

On April 3, the CDC updated its website to state that “a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms,” and that pre-symptomatic people can still transmit the disease. Consequently, the organization recommended face masks in public.

“If someone gets on the bus, isn’t coughing or sneezing, and stands there and talks to the operator for a minute instead of 10 seconds if they’re coughing or sneezing,” Meader explained, “that's a different situation.”

Rather than fix the problem, the change in guidance created new problems. Jails and shelters in the metro area reduced their populations to maintain distancing, creating a new group of people not traveling as essential workers, but seeking shelter on buses. Then, after a Detroit bus driver died following his complaint about a coughing passenger who did not cover her mouth, RTD drivers were on edge once more.

“What we were hearing was a mixed bag of things from operators,” Menten said. “It was things like, ‘we’ve got people coming on. They’re coughing. The passengers don’t seem to be taking this seriously and wearing protection.’”

Longenbohn explained that “the frustration, honestly, most of it comes from just fear. It’s that people are afraid and rightfully so. They’re trapped in that one spot and they don't know who’s getting on and off the bus.”

The focus turned back to protective equipment. An alternate order of KN95 masks, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently allowed despite not meeting American standards, is also scheduled to arrive after April 20. While speaking on Tuesday from his office, Longenbohn paused to accept a delivery of 2,000 masks.

RTD’s contractors have encountered the same supply problems, but have also been working to acquire masks. A spokesperson for Transdev said that beginning the week of April 12, “significant quantities of washable surgical masks will arrive for our operators and frontline staff. Full face shields will arrive for our operators as well,” which the operators will wear over their masks. First Transit, another contractor, did not respond to a request for comment.

Menten has begun sewing cloth masks for operators employed by RTD and its contractors, and said she had roughly 100 total by Friday morning. Her goal is to reach 2,500 and entice members of the public to sew for the operators, too.

“Day by day, we are doing the best we can,” she said.

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