Open Letter: Transit Safety during COVID-19 Pandemic

11 April, 2020

Councilor Matt Allard

Chair Infrastructure Renewal and Public Works Committee

City of Winnipeg

Email: MattAllard@winnipeg.ca

Re: Concerns about the safety of City of Winnipeg bus drivers and passengers

Dear Matt,  

I am writing to you to express my concerns about the safety of the Winnipeg bus drivers and passengers on the City of Winnipeg buses during this time of COVID-19, a time like no other. We know that COVID-19 is presenting challenges such as our community has never before seen and that recently a bus driver in Ottawa tested positive for it. The City of Winnipeg bus drivers are, as are all front line workers, heroes. They come to work every shift and perform a public duty in a difficult situation and physically dangerous environment and at the end of their shifts they return home to loved ones.

In addition to concerns I am, in good faith, offering suggestions as to how increased safety can be provided for both drivers and passengers. It is my understanding that many of these suggested actions are being practiced in other municipalities, although some may be unique to the Winnipeg setting. I have organized my concerns by the general issues of safe work in the time of COVID-19 with specific suggestions for each category of concern following the general issue. Social/Physical distancing:

COVID-19 has moved beyond transmission due to travel into community transmission. Because of this change, the need to keep at a safe distance from each other in order not to transmit it within communities is of utmost importance. Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Dr. Brent Roussin, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer, Province of Manitoba, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Brian Pallister and Mayor Bowman have repeatedly called for social/physical distancing. This past week both Premier Pallister and Mayor Bowman held a joint press conference to enhance public health orders until broader provincial legislation will be passed in the near future, rightfully reflecting their concerns on the need to practice social distancing.

Both Dr.’s Tam and Roussin specifically citing the need for social distancing on public transit. This means staying six feet or 2 metres away from other people. At the present this is proving very difficult for bus drivers, as they are in their drivers seats and do not have the option to social distance on their own. Passengers too need to have every ability to socially distance.

In order to create a physical environment which would enable this, I would like to suggest that:

• Line markings placed on the floor of the bus, six feet behind drivers, behind which those riding the bus must stay, similar to well-known yellow currently found on all buses.

• The seats directly behind the driver be taped off ensuring that no passengers sit in them, further creating a six foot distance from the driver.

• Seating throughout the buses could be taped off as well, which would create a safe distancing environment for all passengers.

• Line markings should clearly designated on the floor of the bus, at six feet intervals, as is commonly being done in grocery stores and financial institutions, providing passengers with a clear guide to social distancing.

• Establish a policy of front door entry and rear door exit, thereby limiting the amount of traffic directly around the drivers’ seat and between passengers.

• Limit the number of passengers on every bus to approximately 15 +/- 5. This would make social distancing possible.

• Deploy more buses on the busier core routes and update the route schedule boards and apps so passenger know that if a bus is too full to allow for social distancing, another bus will be along within a few minutes.

• Have a number of drivers and buses ready to deploy, at busier times of the day, if buses are not able to keep to the social distancing measures suggested above.

• People have begun to congregate within bus shelters in larger numbers than they have in the past. It is important to keep these people safe and provide positive safe alternatives for them to be. Transit management should approach social services agencies to partner in finding ways to communicate and help people move from bus shelters to safe locations.

• A number of seniors are taking the bus on a regular basis and not social distancing. At the end of the day, they are returning to their seniors residences. This puts both other bus passengers and those in the seniors’ residences at risk. We have recently seen a rash of concerning developments in senior care homes across Canada. Transit management should work with senior social services organizations to help these folks understand the risks and encourage them to stay in place.

• Within the Transit facilities, establish guidelines for social distancing in the Management office, the bus garage and drivers’ lounge. Provision of safety equipment:

• The appropriate PPE equipment must be made easily accessible to bus drivers.

• Bus drivers must be provided the appropriate PPE gloves to wear while on the job. In order to perform the job, drivers are having to touch several different pieces of the bus and need to be protected from picking up COVID-19 from this necessary physical contact.

• The discussion on the wearing of masks has recently been revived and over the past few days, Dr. Theresa Tam has stated that if social distancing is not possible, the use of masks could prove helpful in reducing the spread of COVID-19. In this instance it is better to err on the side of caution and provide the drivers with the appropriate masks, as passengers often come within the six foot social distance while getting on/off the bus.

• Make sanitizing gel as accessible as possible by ensuring the gel in the dispensers in the bus garage are constantly replenished. This is important as some drivers begin shifts in the early hours of the day, while others work into the late hours of the night. This would alleviate the problem of drivers, having been issued one 80 ml bottle of hand-sanitizer a number weeks ago, from running out.

• Some time ago, Winnipeg Transit determined to use only those buses with the shields already installed. They were installed as a physical safety measure from assaults. Unfortunately, they do not go high enough to protect the drivers from droplets emitted by passengers. It would be prudent to install shields that protect the drivers such as can now be found in grocery stores throughout Winnipeg and far beyond.

The Cleaning of buses:

• Buses should be cleaned thoroughly every time they return to the bus garage, which, in most cases would mean at least once every 24 hours. It is my understanding that buses are being cleaned only every 48 hours. Moving to the

Saturday schedule:

It is my understanding that moving to the Saturday schedule would greatly reduce the number of buses on the streets at any given time. I also understand that core routes are still very busy during various times of the day. The reduction in the number of buses on the streets could make it much more difficult to establish social distancing for drivers and passengers alike. It may be appropriate to rethink this as in addition to the above concern, this action may lead to many layoffs, making it difficult to send out more buses if needed on any given route and could also create a scenario where it would be difficult to recall drivers when the COVID-19 pandemic has ended.

Designation of essential worker status:

It is clear that the City of Winnipeg bus drivers are essential workers, in the same group as healthcare workers, trucking company employees and those associated with the grocery industry. It is unclear however, even though the buses continue to run, that the steps necessary to officially declare them essential have been taken. In this case, it would be appropriate to have clarification on this issue, and if the steps necessary to declare the workers have not been taken, to do immediately. If the steps have been taken, it would be very helpful to get a statement from the Mayor of this status. The official declaration of the drivers being essential workers would mean that drivers would be given access to childcare, be automatically provided with better protection while on the job, provided pay parity with other city departments and allow for hazard pay to be negotiated with the ATU. Interestingly enough, the drivers are tasked with safely transporting clearly designated essential workers to and from their homes and workplaces.

Role of Transit supervisors:

Winnipeggers know of the physical dangers suffered by bus drivers over the last several years, one driver actually being murdered while on duty. Not as serious offences include physical assaults and verbal assaults to name a few. As a result, drivers have been told, and rightly so, not to engage with the public in order to minimize assaults, misunderstandings and close physical contact. Therefore, when a situation arises, the support and response of the Transit supervisors is paramount. Management must assure supervisors of the seriousness of these activities and provide them with the tools to deal effectively and require them to do so with each instance.

Implementation of a regular testing regime:

It is very important that a regime of regular testing for COVID-19 be implemented for the City of Winnipeg bus drivers. This will not only identify drivers who have the illness and are asymptomatic, it will also help to identify those have recovered from COVID-19 and may be carrying the antibodies necessary for the current development of a vaccine.

Policy directive sent from the Committee to the Transit Management team:

It is very important at a time such as this, that clear direction be given by the elected officials to the civil service. Therefore, it is imperative that a clearly written policy directive by provided to the Transit management team as to steps to be taken to provide improved safety for both the bus drivers and passengers and that they are to be implemented immediately and continued until COVID-19 is under control.

Roll out a public education campaign:

It is clear that, as with all other sectors of community interaction, some members of the public need to be informed as to how to behave on a public transit bus in the time of COVID-19 and the steps they need to take to make this happen. Therefore, it would be very helpful to establish a public education campaign to be rolled out as soon as possible focusing on the protection of drivers and passengers alike.

I know that my letter poses many challenges to the current operating environment at Winnipeg Transit, but doing the right things now can literally save lives, both in the present and the future. The most recent predications are that COVID-19 will be with us for many months, if not years, to come. I personally believe that we will need to take serious precautions until a vaccine has been developed and has been widely distributed throughout the world. With this analysis, I believe it is imperative that the above actions be taken immediately by the City to protect both the safety of the Transit bus drivers and the passengers on the City of Winnipeg buses.

I would like to thank you for considering my suggestions and look forward to hearing back from you in the not too distant future. I can be reached via email at cmelnick@mymts.net and via phone at 204 257 0517, no text messages please.
Take care and be safe.


Sincerely,

 

Chris Melnick

 

Cc: Mayor Brian Bowman 

Committee members

Winnipeg City Councilors

Mike Ruta, Acting CAO, City of Winnipeg

Dr. Brent Roussin, Chief Provincial Health Officer, Manitoba

Rachel Squires, Minister of Municipal Relations, Province of Manitoba

Romeo Ignacio, President Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1505