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Source: US Amalgamated Transit Union

Bus drivers have begun opening the front doors to allow passengers to enter and pay their fares again — and many feel unprotected against catching the coronavirus.

On Oct. 5 CTtransit expanded its protection measures for riders and drivers as the bus system begins taking steps towards reopening for business amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Before Oct. 5, the use of buses’ fare boxes and front-door boarding were temporarily suspended statewide due to the coronavirus. Riders entered in the middle of the bus and rode for free.

Ralphi Buccitti, business agent from ATU Local 281, which represents New Haven-area bus drivers, blasted the change. He argued that the state should keep the rear-door boarding policy in place until at least the end of flu season and the beginning of spring.

“This has been nothing but a daily nightmare. We think they need to put those protocols back in place. The rear-door boarding made so much sense,” Buccitti said.

“The state of Connecticut is making a mistake by reinstating front-door boarding and collecting fares. They’re putting dollars ahead of human life.”

He blasted the state for not allowing drivers to enforce the mask-wearing mandate. “We have people with no masks on in front of drivers’ faces,” he said.

Asked for a response, DOT Deputy Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto reported in an email that CTtranist has seen “extremely high mask usage” on buses. DOT has provided drivers with “an extensive supply of masks” and installed “permanent secure protective barriers for drivers” in “neary every CTTransit-branded bus.”

Eucalitto also stated that bus workers should “use their judgment with respect to unruly passengers, while ensuring they protect themselves.”

“All of the state’s transit districts have been coordinating with CTDOT on a unified approach to ensuring critical service continues, in the safest manner possible, throughout COVID,” he wrote.

CTtransit driver Walter Morton said he gave out two masks to passengers without them as they boarded his bus on Wednesday.

Unlike other drivers interviewed, who asked to remain anonymous, Morton offered a somewhat upbeat assessment of the latest rules change.

Since the start of the pandemic, Morton said, his employer has addressed his initial concerns with proactive measures taken to keep not only the passengers safe but drivers like himself as well.

The driver seat area for each bus is protected with a plexiglass barrier to limit driver and passenger contact as riders board at the front entrance of the buses again.

Morton estimated that 90 percent of his riders comply with the mask-wearing order. Last week, CTtransit began stocking the buses with disposable masks packaged in individual plastic bags for maskless passengers to take and wear during their rides.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but I think the company is being as safe as possible,” he said.

Morton said buses have been equipped with face shields for drivers to opt to wear when assisting disabled passengers in wheelchairs onto the bus. “I’m glad they thought of it. The shields are the added protection we need when it comes to getting into close contact with people in chairs.”

Morton, who has been a driving buses for ten years, said CTtransit is usually good with “doing all they can do.” Since March, Morton keeps a travel-size hand sanitizer provided by CTtransit in his pocket at all times while working.

A plastic curtain protector has also been added to some buses for drivers to manually close for further protection.

Union rep Buccitti said that curtain poses its own dangers: “If people are coughing, sneezing, the operator needs to touch this protective barrier,” which could be “germ-infested and possibly Covid-infested.”

A four-year veteran driver said he has dealt with some passengers who said they didn’t know the bus fare charges started back up again despite postings of the change on all buses about a week in advance.

“Things have changed, but some of this stuff you can tell they weren’t really trying to protect us. It’s like when you just do something for show,” he said.

The driver said the plastic curtain that was installed in the buses is “impractical” because it is out of the his reach while he is seated or focused on driving.

In the past, some buses haven’t been equipped with extra masks to distribute to passengers without them, the driver said. “I just feel like if there’s no enforcement, then you don’t really care about us,” the driver said.

The driver said it is unfair and is a risk to public health to not allow drivers to refuse service to riders without masks.

In accordance to an executive order released in April, drivers may not refuse rides to maskless passengers. While Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order requires face masks on all public transit, it states that those with medical conditions exacerbated by wearing a mask or children under 2 years old can be exempt from the order. The order also says maskless riders with a medical condition are not required to produce medical documentation to keep from invading riders privacy.

The driver said when it comes to assisting those in wheelchairs he feels very unsafe. In only a mask, he said, he has had to help passengers in wheelchairs not wearing a mask.

“People cough near me and I’m paranoid for weeks,” he said

“I’m in my late 20s, meaning I’m not the youngest and I’m not old, but I know i can get it so. Why aren’t i being kept safe?”

Another driver said she recently had to deal with drivers who have forgotten how to use their bus passes.

The driver said a 30-day notice should have been given to riders that fare charges were returning. “I thought those percautions would last until the end of the year at least. That seems fair to me,” she said. “Covid is still around. I feel like we’re moving too quick.”

“We’re on the front lines, and we’re not getting credit,” said CTtransit driver James (who declined to give his last name).

Newhallville resident Patrick Griffin put his feet up to stretch across a bench Wednesday morning while waiting to catch a ride home after a overnight shift. Griffin wore his disposable face mask over his mouth but tucked under his nose leaving it exposed.

“Some people don’t respect the whole social distance thing happening. So call it dramatic, rude, or whatever but I’m doing what I need to,” Griffin said.

Griffin has been taking care of his two elderly parents at home for almost three years now. He works two jobs and only one has allowed him to stay at home to work remotely due to the pandemic. “They need me. I need me. My jobs need me. All I can do is be extra safe,” he said.

CTtransit driver Louis Deluc said he hasn’t held with many issues with passengers since the start of the pandemic. When riders without masks board the bus, Deluc said, he always gestures his hand over his mouth to remind them to put a mask on. “Some forget and some just don’t wear them,” he said. To avoid contact, starting last week Deluc began placing a few extra masks at the front entrance of the bus for those without them.

Deluc said he wishes something could be done for the bus windows to open for ventilation during rides.

Paul Bass contributed reporting.

MIL OSI USA News