Fearing coronavirus, Muni operators demand more protection

Drivers refusing to accept cash fares, asking customers to use the back door

UPDATE 3/25/2020: A Muni operator has tested positive for COVID-19. For more info, see the article here.

The original story follows.

Muni operators are calling on their employers to establish “social distancing” rules aboard San Francisco buses.

But they’re not waiting for their bosses to start enforcing the practices.

Fearing coronavirus infection, Muni operators are shutting the front doors of buses, taping up their fareboxes and refusing to accept cash in order to keep riders at least six feet away.

“Dozens” of operators have already begun the practice, Roger Marenco, the president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A told the San Francisco Examiner. But that number is expected to increase.

Riders can still board buses through the back door and pay for their fares through the Muni mobile app or Clipper cards, since Clipper readers are also located near the rear entrance of the bus.

“Operators are in fear of their lives,” Marenco said by phone Tuesday. “If the agency doesn’t implement these measures, like rear-door boarding only, operators are going to take matters into their own hands to protect our lives.”

Marenco sent an email to Mayor London Breed, the Board of Supervisors and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency management Tuesday demanding those practices be allowed and encouraged agency-wide, including the suspension of cash fare collection. The email notes that drivers would allow front-door boarding if a passenger is in a wheelchair, has other disability needs or is a senior.

The tape that operators have already begun stretching across bus floors and on fareboxes is intended to stop people from paying fares, and to mark a place where riders should not stand in order to maintain social distance from operators. Marenco noted that anyone paying a cash fare is violating social distance rules in practice because the farebox is so close to the operator.

(Photo courtesy Transport Workers Union Local 250-A)

(Photo courtesy Transport Workers Union Local 250-A)

While city leaders back the Muni operators in principle, in practice they are concerned that people with disabilities and seniors, who are among the groups who most often pay in cash, still will need to board in the front of buses.

And there is also a fiscal fear, as Muni, BART and other Bay Area transit agencies have called for emergency funding from local, state and federal government as their ridership collectively plummets — city officials fear Muni may not be able to afford to suspend cash payments.

“The tradeoff right now is, if you stop accepting revenue, in a time where you’re losing revenue across the agency, you’re jeopardizing people’s current jobs. Less lines, less service, hurting the people you’re trying to help,” Supervisor Ahsha Safai said by phone on Tuesday.

Safai said he’s trying to help the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the union come to a compromise: “We have to make the safety of the operators a paramount concern.”

Muni would be far from the first agency to make changes to its boarding and fare policies in light of coronavirus.

In Ontario, Canada, Hamilton Street Railway is asking riders to enter buses from the rear and allowing free fares during a local shelter-in-place order, according to the agency’s social media account. The same practice was instituted in Los Angeles aboard LA Metro transit.

Closer to home, AC Transit in the East Bay started offering fare-free service on Monday and is also asking its riders to board through rear doors. SamTrans also announced Tuesday that it would urge passengers to board in the rear of its vehicles.

Will SFMTA follow suit? It’s unclear.

“As you know, this is a fluid situation, and we’re rapidly working on the best solutions to protect our operators and the public,” Erica Kato, an SFMTA spokesperson, said in a statement.

Kato said SFMTA is “evaluating” some safety measures to protect the well-being of their staff and the riding public, including monitoring Muni capacity to ensure social distancing, prioritizing service on lines more frequently used, and installing signage aboard vehicles to remind passengers to “keep distance between themselves and other riders/Muni operators.”

Muni buses do use a protective plastic barrier between operators and the riding public, Kato noted, but Marenco said those barriers don’t completely cover an operator, and don’t protect Muni operators.

“The barrier does not protect you against the virus,” Marenco said. “San Francisco is usually the first city to implement rules and policies, taking it to the extreme. Why the hell are we not implementing safety measures for our workers?”

Marenco warned that whether SFMTA approves it or not, operators will begin to protect themselves. While only dozens have implemented the changes on their own so far, he said, “as word gets out it will turn into hundreds (of operators), then it will turn into the entire fleet. People are in fear.”


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