A Halifax transit bus at the Sackville Terminal, March 18, 2020. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont
A Halifax transit bus at the Sackville Terminal, March 18, 2020. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

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The head of the union representing Halifax’s transit workers says his members are “absolutely terrified” for themselves, their families, and passengers as they continue providing services in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The drivers’ moods are, well, I guess pick a word. Scared, agitated, frustrated, worried, nervous, anxious,” Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) president Ken Wilson said late Wednesday afternoon.

“I came into the lobby this morning at 4am just to talk to them face-to-face and we’ve been hearing from them since last Friday. They’re absolutely terrified.”

On Tuesday, the city announced that in keeping with safe social distancing protocols, it was suspending all fare collection on bus and ferry services effective Wednesday. In addition, passengers must now board and exit buses via back doors. The front doors will only be used for those who require the accessibility ramp.

Wilson said while he embraced the announcement, it should have happened much sooner.

“We asked to have standing loads removed, seating only. That took almost two days to implement. We asked for back door boarding. That took 24 hours to implement. We asked for no fares at the very beginning of this because as we all know money carries germs and people standing in front of operators in that close proximity should’ve stopped immediately,” Wilson said.

“We just got that stopped today. We’re trying to do all the right things. Thankfully the employer is listening to us, but It is taking 24 to 36 hours for them to react. The final cherry on top today is we just learned that HRM closed all customer service depots saying that it is not safe for their employees to have face-to-face interactions with the public. But why can a bus driver still drive right now?”

In a media release on Tuesday, the municipality announced that ridership is down more than 43% on conventional bus service, 51% on ferry service and 67% on Access-A-Bus service.

Wilson applauds those dropping numbers because it means people are heeding public health warnings to work from home, self isolate and/or practice safe social distancing. But he continues to be concerned for drivers and passengers.

“Even if someone gets on at the back door you still have wheelchair accessibility, people getting on at the front door. We can’t avoid that. So there’s still going to be interaction with the operator and it’s still the same very confined space,” he said.

“Our Access-A-Bus vehicles, which are essentially a cube van carrying some of our most precious cargo as I like to call it, these people have to be strapped in. We’re leaning over them, we’re right directly in front of their faces while we’re putting them in wheelchairs. We’re concerned.”

Wilson said he has been fielding texts and calls from his members who tell him things like every time they open the bus door, they experience neck tension. Passengers coughing or sneezing on the bus have also led to increased anxiety as drivers become increasingly concerned about the spread of the virus.

“As an example, an operator was traveling last night and she had an intoxicated passenger who was spitting all over her face, probably standing four or five feet away, just as he was talking,” Wilson said.

“It took a couple of mobile supervisors to remove him, and upon removing him he was licking his hands and touching the poles and the fare box saying that he has COVID-19. Which probably isn’t true, but now the operator is heightened. Everyone is becoming hyper vigilant and hyper sensitive.”

He said they’re asking people to only use transit as a last resort and necessity, in addition to being respectful of the fact the bus is a driver’s work space.

“We removed the fares and went to back door boarding so we could ensure that safe distances are adhered to at all times. Just be mindful that,” he said.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, Wilson said he hadn’t received any reports from drivers complaining about passengers not abiding by the new protocols to enter and exit buses via the back doors.

But he said drivers reported that many passengers were unaware of the new measures.

“I got five or six phone calls first thing this morning that operators were asking for posters to be made up by the employer and then fixed to the fare boxes or fixed to the front door or something,” he said.

“To my knowledge as of right now I don’t think that has happened yet.”

Shortly after 4pm Wednesday, there were no notices inside or outside the Lower Sackville terminal on Walker Ave., nor were there notices on buses or fare boxes.

One passenger said she was only aware of the new measure because her daughter called her in the morning to advise her of the change. A handful of passengers could be seen heading to their buses and attempting to get on at the front, only to be directed to the back doors by the driver.

“This is so scary and changing every day. You go into downtown Halifax and Spring Garden Road looks like a ghost town at 6 o’clock in the afternoon. It’s a pretty telling time,” Wilson said.

The Halifax Examiner reached out to the city, but they were unable to provide a comment in time for Wednesday’s deadline.

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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