On Thursday, the state Department of Transportation announced immediate changes to public bus operations.
Passengers will now board from the rear, some buses will have new impermeable barriers to protect drivers, and the DOT is advising riders to use public transit only for essential travel.
That’s partly in response to concerns from public transit bus drivers who still have to go to work amid widespread concerns about the coronavirus.
The state’s announcement did not make any adjustments to changes in service or say that drivers would be provided with additional sick time in the event they become ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
And though the state has limited gatherings to 10 people or fewer, buses can become filled with more than 40 passengers within minutes.
“We are trying our hardest to protect ourselves by wearing gloves and masks, but that doesn’t stop us coming in contact with people,” said Tasha Charleston, a CTtransit bus driver. “There’s no sign or symptoms that we are able to see visibly, so it’s scary.”
Charleston, like many of her co-workers, is a parent.
“I’m panicking because I feel like I don’t know what to do, I do have children at home,” Charleston said. “We’re carrying germs from our bus to our cars to our house, so I feel like they should take more into consideration our families. We are in a really bad position right now.”
She said she’s one of many drivers who fear not going to work because it could directly affect her income; and she’s hesitant to use her sick time because once it’s used up, there’s nothing she can do.
“You use up your sick time, you’re just out of luck,” Charleston said. “You don’t have anything to fall back on.”
Angel Santana drives both CTtransit city and commuter buses. He said that over the last week, the commuter buses that are usually full of employees from Travelers, Aetna, and other insurance companies have become nearly empty. But the city buses he drives continue to see high levels of ridership.
He says his wife’s route is even busier than his.
“It’s kind of upsetting since everybody stays home and we still gotta be out there exposing ourselves,” said Santana, a father of four. “And whatever we’re exposed to, we’ve got to bring that home to our kids.”
Santana also expressed the difficulty drivers face in trying to use the bathroom and wash their hands now that restaurants and even places like Dunkin’ Donuts are closing early or completely for the time being.
“We can’t wash our hands every 20 minutes because we’re driving,” Santana said, “and all the restrooms are closed, so we can’t get off the bus at any time to just wash our hands.”
While the state said its buses are sanitized each night, Santana doesn’t think that’s enough, given that buses are typically on the road for at least 12 hours.
“Even though they’re sanitizing the buses, at nighttime I believe, once you start picking up passengers, that bus is no longer sanitized,” Santana said.
Both Charleston and Santana said CTtransit bus service should be suspended for a couple of weeks to give them time to quarantine and get tested if need be.
In a statement, the state said its bus system is essential.
“Some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, as well as critical health care workers, home health aides and grocery store employees rely and depend on the use of bus service,” the statement said. “Some have no other transportation access, and it is imperative that the system remain operational.”
Earlier this week, the Hartford, New Haven and Stamford chapters of the Amalgamated Transit Union sent a letter to the Lamont administration.
They wanted to know when the state would address the health and safety of CTtransit employees and riders.
“One passenger gets infected -- then what?” said Artan Martinaj, financial secretary of the Hartford chapter. “We’re transporting them from one place to another means we’re infecting people around [us]. It’s scary. We don’t have no masks, we don’t have enough supplies.”