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

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

In a reversal of its previous position, the Regional Transportation District on Friday announced that it would institute rear-door boarding on its buses and suspend fare collections beginning Sunday.

“Loss of Operators either through infection, quarantine or fear of infection is a real and present risk,” wrote Lurae B. Stuart in an email on Thursday morning to RTD’s Michael Meader. Stuart is an assistant vice president of WSP, a company that consults on transportation and safety, and Meader is the agency's chief safety officer. “Also taking these steps shows RTD is caring for Operator health and should have positive affects [sic] with Operator/Union relationships,” Stuart added.

Her statements were at odds with what Meader previously told RTD’s board of directors on Tuesday, according to CPR, when he said that the potential for passengers with COVID-19 to transmit the virus to drivers “really isn't, from the perspective of public health, a major risk.”

Meader did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Thursday, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1772 called for RTD to switch to rear-door boarding and suspend the payment of fares on buses, light rail lines, and commuter rail in the name of protecting driver safety, as other agencies around the country have done. The union also requested the agency supply bus operators with personal protective equipment.

Board Director Shontel Lewis, District B, has agreed with the demands. She also called for a temporary barrier at the front of the bus to create distance for the drivers and for operators to have the discretion to skip stops and limit the number of passengers on board at a time.

“I am pushing to have them alter operations and supply PPE,” Lewis said, adding that there is “some pushback at staff and board level.” She called on Gov. Jared Polis to shut down most RTD service if the agency could not change its protocols by April 13. She said she was grateful for RTD's announcement, but that "we must go further."

In her email to Meader, Stuart described the risks associated with rear-door boarding and fare suspensions to include loss of revenue, riders’ lack of familiarity with the procedure, and an inability of the operator to oversee the boarding as easily. However, weighing the benefits of the change, she concluded that “rear-door boarding provides for distance between Operators and the public, mitigating known circumstances of infection – namely close proximity to those who might be infected.”

RTD said that it is determining how to process refunds to passengers with existing passes, and that passengers who need to use the kneeling and wheelchair ramp features should still continue to board at the front doors. The agency will also suspend the free 16th Street MallRide and MetroRide services in downtown Denver, citing low ridership. MallRide buses will operate on other routes, as they have operator compartments with partitions from the passenger section.

On Friday, Polis asked Coloradans to begin wearing cloth face masks upon leaving their homes. Christine Jaquez, RTD’s director of public relations, responded that the agency is ordering hand sanitizer and other equipment for the drivers, but that it “continues to be difficult to obtain N95 masks.” However, she added that RTD is trying to procure other masks for its employees. “Until then, operators who wish to wear their own masks or nose and mouth coverings can do so, as long as they don’t obstruct visibility in any way.”

The agency reminded passengers to use their judgment and not board a bus if it appeared to lack proper distance between passengers.

Editor's note: RTD has clarified that commuter rail fares will also be suspended.

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