Concern around COVID-19 safety on GRTC buses deters some student riders

The GRTC Pulse bus arrives at the VCU & VUU station. Due to COVID-19, GRTC is free for all riders. Photo by Enza Marcy

Sagal Ahmed, Contributing Writer 

Students are weighing transportation options at the start of a new semester, and some are choosing to avoid bus rides through the Greater Richmond Transit Company due to health and safety concerns. 

The GRTC detected three positive COVID-19 cases at an employee on-site testing event on Jan. 14, bringing the company’s total number of active employee cases to 10. GRTC has had a total of 57 cases among employees and contractors from April 6 to Jan. 16, according to Director of Communications Carrie Rose Pace. 

Bus drivers can pull over and require a passenger who is not wearing a mask to wear one properly. If the passenger refuses to wear a mask, then they will be told to leave the bus.

“We simply cannot transport people right now who are not complying with the mask mandate,” Pace said.

Sophomore gender, sexuality, and women studies and theatre major Casey Clauberg said the GRTC’s safety measures, such as requiring masks and installing plexiglass door shields, seem very effective. 

“You must wear a mask while on board. I’ve had several drivers stop in the middle of the road until people would put their masks back on,” Clauberg said.

The company employs about 590 people, including contractors such as cleaners and specialized transportation drivers. GRTC provides disposable gloves and face masks to their drivers and riders. 

Clauberg said that while GRTC’s safety protocols should make him feel safer, he’s unsure if they actually work.

“Every time I’ve ridden, it feels really cramped.” Clauberg said “They also don’t have a limit to the amount of people on the buses to my knowledge, so you can be very close to people, and you usually are.” 

Passengers travel on the GRTC Pulse bus toward the Willow Lawn station. Photo by Enza Marcy

Pace said it’s hard for drivers to stay six feet away from some passengers due to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires bus drivers to secure those in wheelchairs before the bus can move. 

Because GRTC implemented zero-fare riding, passengers can ride for free and avoid going through the front door to maintain distance from the drivers. The only passengers who are allowed to use the front door are those with disabilities.

“If we were collecting fares right now, there would be hundreds of passengers passing within six feet of the bus operator on their shift,” Pace said.

Lauren Thornton, a sophomore psychology major, used to ride the GRTC buses prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to go to therapy sessions and to Carytown with friends.

“It was about a mile walk past the last stop, so I decided to suck it up and buy a $400 parking pass for spring semester,” Thornton said.

Now, Thornton’s therapy sessions are virtual, so she doesn’t need transportation. She said she wishes that GRTC buses ensured social distancing between passengers. 

“Every time I drive past the bus stops, they look pretty busy,” Thornton said.

Due to overcrowding at bus stops, GRTC temporarily utilized overflow “Express” buses to follow buses on busier routes. This measure ended in September because people were returning to in-person work, and the buses were needed to fill other routes.

“We’re trying to adjust throughout the pandemic and also through seasons, to ensure that we are placing resources where they are most needed,” Pace said. 

An earlier version of this story referred to Casey Clauberg as she. Clauberg uses he/him pronouns.

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