TAMPA — Hillsborough’s bus agency announced four new cases of COVID-19 since Thursday.
Eight employees at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority have contracted the novel coronavirus since March, according to the agency. That includes four bus drivers, a van driver and three employees who are not bus operators. The transit authority has more than 800 employees.
The four cases were reported within a three-day period that aligned with a spike in cases throughout Tampa Bay and the state.
The state has reported more than 2,000 new coronavirus cases every day since June 13, with the exception of one. Saturday set a daily record with 4,049 cases reported throughout the state. It was the same day Hillsborough’s transit agency learned that its eighth employee tested positive.
“The increase we’ve seen in our workers is in line with the increase in the area and in the state,” transit agency chairwoman Mariella Smith said. “I really feel like we’re taking all the measures we can take while keeping bus service going and taking people to their kidney dialysis appointments and their jobs. It’s an essential service.”
Of the most recent cases, two are bus drivers and two are not.
One driver last worked Friday, and the case was announced Saturday. In the two weeks prior, the operator drove the following routes: Route 6 (56th Street), Route 7 (West Tampa), Route 8 (Progress Village/Brandon), Route 16 (Waters Avenue), Route 19 (South Tampa), Route 31 (South Hillsborough County), Route 33 (Fletcher Avenue), Route 36 (Dale Mabry/Himes) and Route 39 (Busch Boulevard).
The other driver last worked on June 13, and the positive case was reported Thursday. That operator had driven routes 5 (40th Street/University of South Florida), 7 (West Tampa/Citrus Park), 8 (Progress Village/Brandon) and 48 (Temple Terrace).
All drivers and passengers are required to wear masks as of Friday, when Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s executive order went into effect. The order requires “every person working, living, visiting or doing business in the City of Tampa (to) wear a face covering consisting with the current CDC guidelines when in any indoor location, other than their home or residence, where interaction occurs with another person.”
The order only applies to Tampa, but transit authority spokeswoman Carson Chambers said the agency extended the requirement to include all passengers on any route.
The agency received 25,000 masks from the US Department of Transportation and the City of Tampa and will distribute free face coverings this week to customers at Marion Transit Center and the University Area Transit Center, while supplies last.
Across the bay, three Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority employees have tested positive for COVID-19 during June, spokeswoman Stephanie Rank said. One is a bus driver, the other two are not.
The agency had not encountered a positive case until June. The three cases were all reported within the same week
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Both the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit agencies announced new policies and upgraded cleaning protocols in March in response to the fast-spreading respiratory infection.
Pinellas officials also decided to eliminate fares during the coronavirus outbreak, enabling riders to board in the back of the bus and avoid contact with the driver and with common touch-points like the farebox.
Smith said she had asked Hillsborough transit staff and interim chief executive Carolyn House-Stewart about their agency enacting similar measures.
“I think those are things we need to explore, although I’ve been told we simply can’t afford to do away with fares.” Smith said. “We’re in a different situation, budget wise and economically, than (Pinellas).”
Carson said the agency will continue to collect fares. All buses are equipped with clear safety shields that provide a barrier and reduce contact between the operator and riders, she said. The first row of seats closets to the front door are closed to riders, except for those with mobility devices, to increase distance between the driver and passengers.
The agency has also placed signage and recorded announcements to encourage staggered seating.
Ridership has decreased almost 60-percent from pre-COVID-19 numbers, Carson said.
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