RTD-04172020-KS-028

Two riders approach a westbound RTD bus ready to board through the back door on East Colfax Avenue at Broadway in Denver on April 17, 2020.

A Denver health investigator discovered on Monday that one of the Regional Transportation District’s bus facilities is not following portions of the state’s COVID-19 health guidance for temperature and symptom screenings. The finding caught RTD by surprise, as the agency had the impression there was no obligation to do so.

Following a complaint from two bus drivers to the city's Department of Public Health and Environment, an employee made unannounced visits to the Platte Division complex at 3333 Ringsby Court on Friday and on Monday to check RTD’s compliance with face coverings, temperature checks for employees and symptom screenings. Under the state’s “Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors” order, such protocols are mandatory, unless the employer delegates the responsibility to workers. In that case, if there are at least 50 employees at the worksite, the employer must collect the symptom information prior to employees entering the facility. 

The investigator found the Platte Division to be compliant with masking requirements, but advised RTD to abide by the other elements of the health order.

“Per manager, the facility is not currently conducting daily temperature checks nor screening employees for symptoms daily, as required,” reads the inspection report obtained by Colorado Politics. “Facility shall fully adhere to all applicable sections of Safer at Home and Face Covering Orders and provide investigator with documentation of compliance, such as copies of the attached screening form.”

The form instructs employers to send an employee home immediately if they exhibit a fever, cough, and shortness of breath, among other indicators of illness.

The investigator noted that there would be further inspections of other RTD facilities within Denver, and that there may be a re-inspection at the Platte Division. Upon request, RTD would be required to provide logs for temperature and symptom checks.

Division manager Sherri Lee did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.

“I think the most salient aspect of this,” said Bob Dinegar, one of the RTD drivers who made the complaint, is, “how the hell are you supposed to contact trace a bus operator?”

Pauletta Tonilas, RTD's assistant general manager for communications, said on Tuesday that the warning from the investigator blindsided the organization because DPHE had not communicated that RTD was doing anything wrong in series of regular meetings with chief safety and security officer Mike Meader.

"He actually put a call in to his counterpart at Denver [DPHE] and we're waiting to get clarification on this," she said. "It's not been our impression that we had to do temperature checks with the type of operation we have."

Tonilas also emphasized that the investigator's initial inspection on Friday produced a finding of compliance for distancing, signage, protective equipment and mask wearing at the Platte Division. She estimated that 250 to 300 employees work out of the division, not all of whom are operators.

Danica Lee, the director of Denver's Public Health Inspections Division, acknowledged the meetings with Meader, but agreed that there was a miscommunication about the meetings' purpose.

"Those meetings are to talk about questions they might have, where we're at with the outbreak. It's not to provide a compliance review of all their operations," she said. "Any conversation you might have with our agency or guidance you might get certainly doesn't supersede the need to carefully review" the health orders.

Lee clarified that RTD needs to comply with the requirements for screenings. She added that on Wednesday morning, she spoke with Meader about the investigator's findings and the nature of her own advice to the agency, and would have a subsequent meeting later in the afternoon to answer RTD's specific questions.

A DPHE spokesperson provided a note of the original phone complaint, which read that in “rtd locations, garages from which the buses are dispatched[:] the face mask is not being worn, no temp screening on the employees, caller says they have been advised of the order and the enforcement, and nothing has changed in regard to enforcing this.”

Chris Moralez, the other bus driver who complained to DPHE about the lack of compliance, said that he goes into the Platte Division twice per week, and only when he has to. Moralez defended Lee’s management of the division generally and during the pandemic. 

“We have a sleep room — she closed that. She removed chairs in the drivers' room, removed tables in the drivers' room,” he said. “She can’t be there 24/7 to get people to not be congregating.”

However, despite the investigator’s findings, Moralez maintained that there are employees at the facility who are not wearing masks or distancing themselves.

“We’re in a society where people are about themselves. They don’t care about everybody else, and I think that's what we’re seeing, along with our drivers,” he said. “They’re no different. I don’t think it’s anything more than a selfish society.”

Denver already has a masking order, and Gov. Jared Polis has repeatedly urged Coloradans to cover their faces in public. On Tuesday morning, he wrote on Facebook, "Good Morning! It’s a good day to wear a mask!" So far, however, Polis has refused to follow other governors in issuing a mandate similar to Denver's.

Dinegar and Moralez said they are also concerned about the re-institution of front-door boarding. RTD suspended fares and directed passengers to board through the rear doors of buses beginning in April to minimize contact with bus drivers. The agency ended that practice on July 1. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment still advises rear-door boarding in its most recent guidance.

Denver’s health department is investigating compliance with public health orders at approximately 150 facilities every week. After the first and second visits, the employer receives an order to comply. If there is still noncompliance, or no indication of progress, the city can issue a citation for an imminent health hazard of up to $999.

RTD board of directors Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede and Director Kate Williams, who chairs the Operations & Customer Services Committee, did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Director Shontel M. Lewis, District B, said on Tuesday that while she had not personally reviewed the screening practices at facilities, she does hear from operators about working conditions.

"It's not about whether or not [RTD] can do it, it's a matter of doing it," she said. In the absence of screening and contact tracing, "to not have that in place leads to community spread."

Tonilas said that RTD has numerous other safety protocols and, as of Tuesday, had 15 identified COVID-19 infections total. However, "doing daily temperature checks for everyone in our facilities would be a challenge with 3,000 employees."

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