Miami-Dade Transit Union Worries About Coronavirus Threat

The transit system can present a weak point in the fight against coronavirus.
The transit system can present a weak point in the fight against coronavirus. Photo by Ed Webster / Flickr
Luis relies heavily on Miami-Dade's public transit system.

"I can't really live without it," says Luis, who asked New Times to use a pseudonym because he is undocumented.

Every day, the disabled 59-year-old takes the bus and Metrorail from where he sleeps in South Miami-Dade to soup kitchens and clinics in downtown Miami, where he gets hot meals and medical care. He suffers from postpolio syndrome — a condition marked by muscle weakness, atrophy, and fatigue — brought on by polio diagnosed when he was a boy in Colombia.

During normal times, Luis also likes to ride the bus to a different library each day. Before the library system closed indefinitely, it was a lifeline for him — he'd read the news, watch movies, and charge his phone.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted almost everything routine and familiar. Luis says it's a small comfort that he can still catch a bus and reach necessary services. Despite ridership dropping on buses, the Metromover, and Metrorail, the transit system can present a weak point in the fight against coronavirus.

Miami-Dade Transit is still running, albeit with some limitations. The system continues to transport low-income residents, essential employees who can't work from home, and people without driver's licenses, car insurance, or a vehicle. Public transit already caters to some of the community's most vulnerable — people who could be at greater risk of exposure to coronavirus.

Yesterday afternoon, Luis says he waited an hour for a bus to take him south from downtown Miami.

"It was pretty packed," he says. "It was worrisome."

Jeffery Mitchell, president of the Transit Workers Union, Local 291 — the union that represents about 2,800 transit workers in Miami-Dade — says more needs to be done to protect passengers and transit employees.

"We've got a lot of concerns about driver safety and passenger safety," Mitchell says. "And the operators are extremely nervous because they've been in contact with hundreds, if not thousands, of people on a daily basis. Our employees right now are working in fear."

Buses and trains are being disinfected; flat surfaces on buses are wiped down overnight and sprayed with Lysol during the day. Alice Bravo, the county's transportation and public works director, says buses are being cleaned more frequently. But cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer for riders is in short supply. Mitchell says the current level of cleaning is insufficient.

"Cleaning at night, we've been doing that for 30-some years," he says. "Do you know how quick this can spread if some passengers have that virus, don't know it, and ride public transit? We can take this thing around the whole county. This is what we want to get ahead of."

Despite decreased ridership, the Miami Herald reported last week that more than 150,000 people were using public transit amid the crisis.

Mitchell sent a letter to Bravo, county commissioners, and County Mayor Carlos Gimenez urging action. The letter claims at least two bus drivers have been quarantined at local hospitals recently because of exposure to coronavirus. Mitchell says bus drivers are among the transit employees with the highest risk of exposure.

"They have direct contact with people, sometimes face to face," Mitchell says. "[Passengers] come and ask questions about how to get [to places]. These days, it's a hazardous position to be in."

The Herald reported last week that a bus driver was under isolation at home for possible exposure and was awaiting test results. Bravo, the transportation director, told New Times yesterday that some transit staff were sent home sick and tested for COVID-19, but the results are pending.

"So far we have been lucky," Bravo says. "As far as we know, nothing has come back positive."

In New York City, a subway conductor and a bus driver have already died of COVID-19, according to media reports.

Mitchell says more aggressive sanitation efforts are needed. He says the transportation department is in the process of buying equipment that can clean the inside of buses and trains with sanitizing vapor.

He also suggests adding buses to some of the busier routes to help thin out crowds and limit passenger interaction.

The county has taken some recent measures to limit interaction between passengers and transit employees, such as suspending transit fares, asking riders to board buses through the rear door, and urging people to limit transit use to essential trips.

"We're telling people to restrict travel [on] cruise ships and airlines," Mitchell says. "It's no different than people on a bus. That's a petri dish."

A transit employee, who asked to remain anonymous over fear of losing his job, says he wishes the county would shut down the transportation system. He has an elderly mother he looks after and worries about exposing her to the virus because of his job. He says coworkers have called in sick because they feel unwell or are afraid of exposure. The hubs where transit employees report to work and receive their daily assignments can be filled with dozens of people at a time and also present a danger, the employee says.

"Kids are home from school, and lots of parents have to stay with the kids," the employee says. "The only thing I wish is that we shut down the system until they get a handle on this and not risk the employees. Transit is essential during a normal working period. Lots of people aren't going to work."

Mitchell, the union president, says that can't happen yet. People still need to get to work, find social services, and make trips to the grocery store and pharmacy.

Azhar Chougle, executive director of Transit Alliance Miami, says a transit shutdown is complicated.

"If we shut down the transit system, we have to shut down all mobility," he says. "Ridesharing, bikes, cars, everything. All movement beyond essential movement would need to be locked down. You can't disproportionately impact people without cars and people who might already be on the edge of their livelihoods."

Chougle says leaders also need to discuss the long-term viability of public transit. On a regular day in Miami-Dade, one of the state's most expensive counties to live in, people might need to choose between paying rent, loans, utility bills, for groceries, or a car payment. The economic crisis will force people to make tougher financial decisions. Public transit might become critical to more people on the rebound from the pandemic.

"Transit is losing a lot of money, and now the federal government is considering a bill to support transit agencies," Chougle says. "Our economy is suffering, and coming out of this, more people will depend on public transit than ever before. There's a need for transit to come back stronger than ever."
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Alexi C. Cardona is a former staff writer at Miami New Times.