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You can ride free on public buses in Pinellas to avoid crowding at fare boxes

The move is designed to protect drivers and riders from COVID-19 on Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority routes.
Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority riders will not have to pay a fare starting Thursday and are being asked to use the back of the bus to board. Officials are hoping the measures will cut down on potential spread of the novel coronavirus. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

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ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County’s public bus agency will let people ride for free on all routes starting Thursday.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority announced the decision late Wednesday “due to the growing threat of COVID-19 coronavirus.”

Officials said the decision was made out of concern for the safety and well-being of employees and riders. The policy remains in place indefinitely.

“By temporarily going fare-free, it will reduce crowding by the farebox and limit exposure to passengers and bus operators,” said a statement from the agency.

Agency spokeswoman Stephanie Rank said officials made the decision after hearing concerns from bus drivers about crowds that sometimes form at the farebox.

“We take their input very seriously, especially during these difficult times,” Rank said. “Any way that we can make them feel safe while performing their jobs, we will do what we can.”

Related: Many bus riders and drivers don't have the option of practicing social distancing

Riders are also encouraged to use the back door to get on and off the bus to minimize interaction with the driver and common touch-points like the farebox. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus can live on certain surfaces for up to 24 hours.

The transit agency collects about $800,000 per month from fares, Rank said. Last year, farebox revenue accounted for about 13 percent of the agency’s revenue.

“It’s likely this initiative will be less costly than one or two of our employees or family members on our health insurance going into the hospital with an illness for an extended time,” Rank said. “This will also allow us to shut down our money counting operation...and reassign those employees to cleaning activities.”

Hillsborough’s transit authority was still collecting fares and operating regular service as of Thursday morning.

Staff continues to monitor ridership, workforce levels and closures of businesses along routes and will adjust service levels as needed based on changing conditions, spokeswoman Carson Chambers said.

“We continue to remind customers to follow good hygiene as recommended by the CDC, practice social distancing onboard and stay home if you are sick,” Chambers said.

The transit authority did announce reduced hours for the TECO Line Streetcar, a free transit option for those in downtown Tampa and Ybor City. The change was triggered by the recent shutdown of bars and other entertainment activities, along with the limiting of restaurant hours, according to a statement from the agency.

Starting Friday, the streetcar will run 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Transit authorities in both Pinellas and Hillsborough are cleaning buses and fareboxes several times a day during the pandemic.

Transit agencies in other parts of the country and the world are trying similar measures to crack down on the spread of the novel coronavirus.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked people over Twitter to avoid crowded train cars and to bike or walk to work if possible.

Transit employees in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Seattle are working to clean and disinfect buses and trains every day. Hillsborough and Pinellas announced similar efforts at their agencies earlier this week.

In Stockholm and Montreal, passengers have been asked to board buses at the back door — usually reserved for getting off — to avoid close contact with the driver.

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