They wear no badge and carry no stethoscope, but Regional Transportation District drivers and operators serve an essential front-line function during this health crisis: getting other essential workers to and from their jobs.
That means dealing with the public at a time when face-to-face interaction can put transit operators’ own health at risk.
It’s for that reason that RTD Director Natalie Menten has taken on the task of powering up her sewing machine and assembling handmade masks to give bus and train drivers some protection.
“We need to stretch our precious resources as far as possible, and a cloth mask helps do that,” she said.
So far, Menten says, she has sewed just over 100 masks with the help of her parents and some agency employees. But at 15 minutes per mask (the masks come with a pocket in which a carbon filter can be placed), she is looking for help in trying to get around 2,000 made for RTD workers.
Those with mask-making skills can contact Menten at 303-647-8900 or email@example.com.
“We want to make sure this is reusable — so they can take this mask home and wash it in hot water and bleach and they can use it again,” Menten said.
RTD has had four positive cases of COVID-19 among its 2,000-employee base — one in administration and three in operations, the agency said Friday. RTD says 70% of drivers and operators have received a mask from the agency’s most recently delivered shipment of equipment, though some type of mask or face covering has been offered to all operators.
Earlier this week, Sen. Michael Bennet and colleagues in the Senate called on the Trump administration to give federal support to transit agencies so they can acquire personal protective equipment more easily. The letter the senators sent to the Federal Transit Administration mentioned Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove, who died from COVID-19 after documenting on social media his experience with a passenger who wouldn’t cover her mouth while coughing on his bus.
It’s not known where Hargrove picked up the virus.
The senators’ letter states that more than 25 transit workers across the country have died as a result of COVID-19.
Earlier this month, RTD announced that it would be getting a little more than $230 million from the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The federal stimulus money can cover expenditures for this calendar year and can be used for any operational costs associated with COVID-19, including salaries and expenses related to protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
On Friday, RTD imposed new limits on bus and train occupancy to make social distancing practices easier to carry out. No more than 15 passengers will be permitted on a typical bus, while 20 will now be the rider limit for larger buses. Each rail car will be limited to 30 passengers.
Buses will bypass stops if social distancing limits are reached. Also, passengers are being asked to wear masks themselves.
RTD’s latest moves follow a decision last week to implement rear-door boarding and exiting when possible to keep as much distance between the driver and passenger as possible. The agency also suspended all fares to eliminate the need to use the farebox on vehicles.
RTD has hung plastic chains inside vehicles to demarcate the area behind the operators and wheelchair securement area to prevent employees and customers from crowding. On April 19, the agency will dramatically scale back service as the state’s stay-at-home order has sharply reduced ridership over the last few weeks.
Lance Longenbohn, president of ATU Local 1001, said he appreciates the measures being taken to protect RTD workers. And he gave a special thanks to Menten for her efforts in making masks for drivers.
“Our folks are pretty scared — they’re out on the front lines,” he said. “The need for masks is not going to go away — at least not for a while.”