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Many bus riders and drivers don’t have the option of practicing social distancing

Local bus agencies are increasing their sanitation efforts and looking at limiting how many people can board each bus.
A man who declined to give his name puts on a protective mask after boarding a bus from to Bay Pines Veterans Administration from the Grand Central bus station in St. Petersburg. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

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Reggie Robinson hadn’t heard much about coronavirus let alone social distancing.

He stood in the doorway of a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus Monday evening on his way home from work and asked a reporter questions. Who can get it? How do you know you have it?

Robinson, 55, leaned against the bus door, hand pressed to a railing.

“Do you think people can catch it on the bus?”

Robinson is one of thousands of people in Tampa Bay dependent on the counties’ bus systems to get to work, doctors’ appointments and grocery stores.

As restrictions on businesses and gatherings rise, Robinson said he doesn’t have the choice to stay home or avoid public areas. Riding the bus is the only way he can get to his job, which still requires him to come in.

Some riders say numbers are down, but transit centers like Grand Central in St. Petersburg still attract large numbers of people. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

Bus drivers have been given masks and cleaning supplies for their stations, but it’s hard to stay six feet away from someone on a bus or avoid common touch-points like railings, fareboxes and seats.

“We’ve tripled our cleaning efforts,” Pinellas bus agency spokeswoman Stephanie Rank said. “Service, as of right now, is still going. That could change depending on the severity of things and what we hear from the county.”

“We have so many riders where we’re their lifeline to get to and from work or grocery stores or even the hospital.”

State and local officials have issued orders limiting group sizes and restricting bar and restaurant hours. Mayor Rick Kriseman placed an outright ban Monday on gatherings of more than 50 people, on public or private property. Hillsborough did, too.

That applies to the Cross-Bay Ferry, as well, which sailed at or near its capacity of 149 people throughout the weekend.

Operator HMS Ferries has now limited sailings to 75 people, and will issue refunds or a ticket for a future sailing to those booked beyond that limit, president Matt Miller said. Unlike the area’s buses, the ferry is used mostly for entertainment, not commuting, data shows.

“We continue to sanitize the vessel after each unloading of passengers prior to taking on new passengers,” Miller said. “We continue to follow all the CDC guidelines,” a reference to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

These guidelines are changing frequently, with the newest recommendation urging individuals to avoid gatherings of 10 people or more.

Many of the area’s buses can carry 45 people seated plus 20 standing. A Hillsborough County directive Tuesday to limit occupancy does not apply to buses, said Carson Chambers, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority spokeswoman.

Early concerns over the virus don’t appear to have affected ridership. Numbers from the last week show ridership in Pinellas was actually up slightly from a year ago, but Rank said the agency expects this week will be lower. While Hillsborough has seen lighter than normal traffic, the numbers are consistent with the dip the agency usually sees around spring break, Chambers said.

The agency was not seeing any significant changes in ridership as of Monday, but as of Tuesday, officials were encouraging riders to practice social distancing and limit their trips to what is necessary, Chambers said.

Both bus authorities stepped up daily cleanings, now sanitizing commonly touched areas at all transit centers and offices twice per day. Team members are also increasing how often they wipe down handrails, seat rails, steering wheels, fareboxes, safety shields and radio equipment on their buses.

Many offices in Tampa Bay are allowing employees to work from home but that’s not an option for bus drivers. If they need or want to stay home, they have to use a sick day. They’ve been provided masks and sanitizing wipes.

“We understand those people that have to come to work and have to get where they’re going,” Chambers said. “We’re making sure their environment is as clean as possible. We’ve stepped up our cleaning, and we’re taking any direction from the county as it comes.”

The Pinellas agency is “looking into what we can do or what we need to do” to limit buses to ridership of 10 or fewer at a time, Rank said.

Robert Dauber of Pinellas Park, who rides the bus everywhere, said he’s taking the situation day by day. He sometimes brings hand sanitizer with him on the bus but often forgets.

Karen Johnson, 63, said she tries to be careful when it comes to public spaces and distancing, but feels like there’s nothing she can do. She rides the bus to get to her doctor’s appointments in Clearwater, Tampa and Land O’ Lakes.

“I depend on the bus,” Johnson said. “I can’t be skeptical, because that’s all I got.”

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