Public Transportation RTD Light Rail Tram in Downtown Denver Colorado

The Regional Transportation District unveiled plans on Friday to ensure social distancing among employees and passengers, despite its previous position that it could not mandate who is able to board vehicles. The agency also confirmed that four employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

As part of its effort to minimize the number of riders on its fleet of buses and trains, the transit agency will now limit capacity on light rail cars to 30 passengers, 15 riders per bus and 20 passengers on larger buses. Drivers may also bypass stops if taking on passengers would not give sufficient space inside the vehicle.

“Our intent is to provide sufficient service while asking passengers to exercise social distancing on our vehicles,” Paul Ballard, RTD interim general manager and CEO, said in a statement Friday. “It is imperative that our passengers use sound judgment when boarding and selecting a seat on our buses and trains to ensure they can maintain social distancing.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in early April issued guidance to transit agencies suggesting that operators be allowed to limit vehicles to 20% of their capacity to ensure a distancing of six feet between riders. The advisory also mentioned skipping stops and cordoning off areas of buses if necessary.

However, RTD’s position until Friday had been that the agency could not bar people from its vehicles, instead asking passengers to use their judgment when deciding whether to board.

“We can’t tell people who can get on our bus and who can’t get on our bus,” said Mike Meader, RTD’s chief safety and security officer, on Thursday. “We’re a public transportation agency. But certainly if the governor or the president came down with a mandate and it was an enforceable rule, we would follow that guidance.”

Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis, appeared to dismiss that argument on Friday morning, saying that the notion of limiting capacity did “align with the enforceable public health order and guidance already issued by CDPHE.” He added that it is the governor’s expectation that RTD would comply with the guidance, including by “enforcing social distancing and making sure riders can safely distance from each other and operators.”

On April 3, RTD announced other safety precautions that included rear-door boarding for buses and fare suspension, both of which would limit driver exposure from passengers. Those ideas, plus the capacity limitation, received support from the operators’ union and Director Shontel M. Lewis, District B. Lewis initially suggested the ideas at a March 24 special meeting of the board of directors.

“We know from operators that there are routes with high ridership,” Lewis said this week. “If we do not ensure social distancing now, the problem doesn’t get better. It gets worse.”

Bob Dinegar, an RTD bus operator, shared a picture with Colorado Politics on Thursday morning of a bus with nearly every seat filled and riders standing.

“We’re not simply concerned with bus operators' physical distancing from passengers (although that is a major concern),” Dinegar wrote to Polis’s office that day. “It’s the ongoing policy of not passing anyone at a bus stop, and not implementing CDPHE guidance for physical distancing by limiting passengers to 20% of vehicle capacity. In practical terms this means 8-10 per bus.”

A spokesperson for RTD also confirmed to Colorado Politics that four employees, including three in operations, have tested positive for COVID-19.

“When a positive case is confirmed, we follow guidance by health officials – employees who may have been in contact with the person are informed and those work areas undergo a deep cleaning,” said Marta Sipeki.

RTD wrote on its website on March 27 that it would “keep the public informed” if there were any positive tests. The agency does not appear to have announced the number of infections since then.

There are approximately 21,000 surgical masks and N95 respirators on order for RTD employees, but those have been delayed as medical professionals are first in line to receive the protective equipment. Lewis and the Amalgamated Transit Union have been calling on the agency to speed the masks to operators in light of an April 3 recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people wear face coverings. Meader said that he realizes it is his responsibility to deliver on that goal.

“We realize that. They don’t have to say that to me,” he said. “That’s my top priority.”

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