OP-ED: Bus drivers need better protection
Bus drivers across the country are dying from COVID-19. We need to do more to protect them.
On March 24, a Detroit bus driver posted a video complaining about a passenger who had coughed on him. Two weeks later the driver, Jason Hargrove, was dead. He is just one of nearly 100 bus drivers who have fatally succumbed to the coronavirus in cities including Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Seattle, Newark, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.
Transit systems around the country are scrambling to adopt measures to protect their workers. Varying widely from system to system, these measures include face masks for drivers, Plexiglas barriers, disinfecting vehicles, fare-free rear door boarding, passenger limits and floor markings to keep passengers separated from drivers and one another.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents 200,000 transit and related workers in the U.S. and Canada, is demanding many of the protections mentioned above, and another noteworthy one: “Requiring passengers to wear masks to board a transit vehicle.”
More than a month ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance regarding the use of face coverings, noting that “the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.”
The guidance also recommends that everyone wear face coverings “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” Such as a bus, perhaps?
Well, as it turns out, perhaps not.
The guidance mentions grocery stores and pharmacies as public spaces where cloth face coverings should be worn, but there’s not a word about buses. And in guidance aimed directly at “bus transit operators,” the CDC lists measures that transit employers should take. Nothing there about requiring passengers to wear masks, either.
What’s going on here? We have strong evidence, supported by experts, that cloth coverings over the mouth and nose capture droplets potentially carrying the virus and keep them from being projected outward. We also know that buses are relatively confined spaces where unprotected sneezes and coughs, and even talking, potentially endanger both the driver and passengers.
The apparent reluctance of many authorities to issue a mandate might be explained, at least in part, by Philadelphia’s aborted effort in early April to require bus riders to wear face coverings. When a video of police dragging an unmasked man off a SEPTA bus went viral, the agency reversed its new (and minimally publicized) requirement that riders wear face masks.
Other jurisdictions have declined to require mask-wearing out of concern that police departments are already strained enough. To date, many transit authorities, including those in Washington, D.C., and coronavirus hot spots like greater Boston are strongly encouraging, but not requiring, riders to cover their faces.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, places such as Toledo, Ohio; New York City; and California’s Bay Area have rolled out no-mask/no-ride policies, including some with criminal penalties for violation.
It’s hard to see how this is the wrong policy. Effective face coverings, including bandanas or simple homemade varieties, are cheap and readily available. The annoyance of wearing them pales in comparison with the potentially devastating harm they help prevent when an (often unknowingly) infected person coughs or sneezes near a driver or fellow rider.
And clearly, more passengers will wear a mask if it’s required rather than merely recommended, whether penalties and enforcement are likely or not.
The nation’s bus drivers are essential workers. To protect them, we need more than recommendations and expectations. We need rules that can be enforced. This should be one of them.
— Michael Felsen of Jamaica Plain, Mass., retired in 2018 after a 39-year career as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor, serving from 2010-18 as its New England Regional Solicitor. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.