Mandatory face coverings for passengers, permanent suspension of fares, and the cleaning regimen for buses and light-rail cars were dominant topics at a pair of telephone town hall meetings on Wednesday night for two Denver-based constituencies in the Regional Transportation District.
“There is not a policy anyplace in effect yet within Denver that mandates wearing masks,” said Director Kate Williams, District A. Referencing the “Reopen Colorado” protests against the recently-revoked stay-at-home order, she added, “We’re from Colorado. We like our rights...I think everybody should wear a mask, but I don’t know that we can make that mandatory.”
RTD has required operators to cover their faces as the latest in a series of COVID-19-related safety measures. The agency instituted rear-door boarding and suspended fares so that passengers do not have to walk past drivers. There are also caps of 15-20 passengers per bus to enable riders to put six feet of distance between themselves, although state guidance calls for an even lower limit.
One caller mentioned the case of a Detroit bus driver who died from COVID-19 shortly after posting a video online complaining about a passenger who did not cover her mouth while coughing in his vehicle. RTD’s position on mandatory masks for passengers is that it will not happen unless Denver or the state of Colorado requires such a policy.
“This is one of those dicey measures,” said Pauletta Tonilas, the assistant general manager for communications. “We aren’t able to enforce that with the public.”
Mike Meader, RTD’s chief safety and security officer, added that the state’s guidance is for people to wear face coverings in public, and he would encourage that behavior among RTD riders. “As of right now there isn’t a law or an order in place in Denver or the state that you must wear a mask,” he said. “But it’s very highly encouraged that you do.”
Glenwood Springs and Aspen are among the communities that have mandated masks for people going outdoors, but Denver has yet to issue such an order. A spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis said on Wednesday night that the governor is “supportive of local moves to encourage all Coloradans to wear masks to help slow the spread of the virus," but made no mention of a possible statewide requirement.
Other callers were interested in a permanent suspension of fares, even after the pandemic. Tonilas said that fare payments generated $12 million monthly. Chief operating officer Michael Ford added that fares equate to roughly one-fifth of RTD’s revenue, so forgoing that income would require a significant new source of money.
Nevertheless, “that is something we are considering,” Williams reported.
Several riders wondered about the cleanliness of RTD vehicles, particularly for seniors using the Access-A-Ride service. Meader said that crews are using chemicals approved for “emerging viral pathogens” and that some light rail operator trainees are now dedicated to wiping down railcars. It is difficult to clean buses during the day when they are in service, but RTD is exploring how to sanitize them if they return to their garage on a break.
Beginning on April 19, RTD switched to a pandemic schedule, with Saturday levels of service for buses and Sunday service for light rail. The schedule represented a 40% cut in service over normal levels, while ridership is roughly 25% of the typical number. Ford said that RTD chose that schedule because the agency wanted to be able to both meet demand and offer the amount of service it advertised. Before the pandemic, RTD approved other cuts to service related to an operator shortage that resulted in some light rail and bus trips being canceled.
RTD reported that the A Line to Denver International Airport, however, is experiencing canceled trips, in part due to track problems and operators potentially self-quarantining.
One participant on the call whose sister was an RTD driver asked the agency to consider putting up Plexiglass barriers to protect operators or install dispensers filled with disinfectant on vehicles. Another caller who identified herself as a driver asked about hazard pay for employees.
“I am more than supportive of hazard pay for our operators. I believe you all are doing the work of the lord,” said Director Shontel M. Lewis, District B, during her district's town hall meeting. Ford said that RTD has discussed the issue and is contemplating whether such a temporary increase in wages is possible.
In response to concerns about driver safety, Ford said that any driver who needs a mask can now get one, and Meader added that RTD has requested COVID-19 tests for its workers.
“Right now the quantity of tests just aren’t there yet,” Meader explained. “There is some sense that the number of tests are going to increase here fairly soon.”
Lewis closed her district’s meeting by praising the pandemic-related initiatives that RTD had put in place in the past two months. “I tend to look at the opportunities in challenges,” she said. “And one of the opportunities, I think, is to think about how we provide our services differently.”