Bay Area bus drivers call for immediate safety protocols as more fall sick with COVID-19

COVID-19 cases are spreading among bus drivers and other transportation workers in the Bay Area.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority reports 165 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 2020, and leaders of the VTA's largest labor union say in the past three days, a dozen new cases have been reported, mostly among bus drivers. Five employees are currently recovering from hospitalizations.

AC Transit reports 128 cases of the virus since March.

"I know that in AC Transit, the numbers have doubled, it's doubled since Thanksgiving," Jovanka Beckles, board director for AC  Transit Ward 1, said.

Both AC Transit and VTA have reported one bus driver death due to COVID-19.

In October, Audrey Lopez, a beloved San Jose bus driver for VTA for more than 13 years, died from COVID-19. 

Lopez was so careful to protect herself from the virus, she had her groceries delivered, according to John Courtney, president and business agent for AT Union local #265, the largest union under VTA.

"The only place that she had been was back and forth to work and home," Courtney added, noting that Lopez got sick on the job, and he says many bus drivers and transit workers are too.  

Ken Blackstone, public information officer for the VTA, says Santa Clara County conducts contact tracing, and the VTA interviews employees about where they've been and who they've been in contact with.

"As a result of our investigations we can determine that most of the people contracting COVID-19 are doing so outside of work," Blackstone said.

Courtney said there's fear of being financially penalized that's keeping workers from sharing the truth.

"Some folks say they got it at home because they don't want to go through all of the VTA process, the questioning, the accusations," Courtney said.

Now the local #265 and Beckles's Ward 1 are asking their respective transportation authorities to require riders to board the bus from the rear doors and skip paying a fair. That's how buses operated at the beginning of the pandemic, but in August that protocol ended, and riders went back to paying fairs from the front of the bus, coming in closer contact with bus drivers.

"Some riders, they want to talk," Beckles said. "And though people are wearing masks, some of them take off their masks, they feel they need to take off their masks to talk. and of course that makes the drivers really nervous," Beckles said.

Blackstone said the switch back to rear door boarding is being considered, but the VTA is hesitant to implement the change until it can determine its efefctiveness in stopping the spread of the virus.

"It's very much on the table, but we want to be sure we are making data-driven decisions, decisions that are backed by the science," Blackstone said.