Metro reduced its service this week in an effort to limit the novel coronavirus pandemic that has embroiled the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region, prompting school and business closures, an uptick in teleworking, and widespread financial uncertainty.
Trains are now operating every 12 minutes Mondays through Saturdays and every 15 minutes on Sundays until further notice after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority moved to the third and highest level of response laid out in its pandemic flu plan on Mar. 13.
Weekend bus service has not been altered, but on weekdays, they are running on a supplemental Saturday schedule usually used on select federal holidays like Veterans’ Day and Martin Luther King Day, when there is additional service, but some routes do not operate after midnight.
WMATA’s MetroAccess, which provides rides to individuals with disabilities that make it hard for them to use fixed-route public transit, will follow the same hours as trains and buses, but the agency says customers should not use the service to travel to healthcare appointments if they show signs of illness.
Metro has suspended its “Rush Hour Promise,” where rail and bus riders can get credits if their trip is delayed by 10 or more minutes during rush hour, until regular service is restored.
The service reductions were implemented “to help protect employees and customers” and to help frontline Metro workers facing “tough choices as they balance work with their family priorities, including caring for children who are home from area schools,” according to WMATA, which is warning people to not take public transportation if they do not feel well.
The lower service levels also provides time for additional disinfecting of Metro’s fleet of 1,200 railcars and 1,500 buses, including a weekly electrostatic fogging process that addresses vehicle surfaces like air ducts and compartments that are otherwise inaccessible.
Metro activated its pandemic flu plan in early February so that it could convene the pandemic task force, which is led by the transit agency’s chief safety officer, and stockpile critical items, including hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, and hospital-grade disinfectant.
Under the task force’s direction, Metro mandated telework for administrative employees, gave remote assignments to workers not essential for operating trains and buses, and barred visitors from its rail operations control center and administrative sites, including its headquarters.
Public meetings at the WMATA Jackson Graham Building have been suspended with the agency planning to announce plans for upcoming meetings “in the coming days.”
“This action is taken to maximize social distancing, a required mitigation to slow the spread of the disease,” WMATA said, referencing the public health strategy of keeping people apart to limit the possibility of infection through physical contact or respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing.
For the new coronavirus, officially named COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health officials have urged people to maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people and to avoid mass gatherings and crowded public places.
The need for social distancing and other protections for Metro riders and workers became even more evident on Mar. 16 when WMATA general manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld confirmed that a Metro Transit Police officer had tested positive for COVID-19.
A Prince George’s County resident, the officer works out of Metro’s District 2 police facility near the Franconia-Springfield Metro station. He has not been to work since Mar. 11, when he started feeling sick, and was tested for the coronavirus on Mar. 15, according to The Washington Post.
The police station was vacated and closed for cleaning and disinfecting, while seven employees identified as recent contacts of the officer were isolated.
Though he did not provide specific details about the officer’s circumstances due to privacy laws, Wiedefeld said on Mar. 16 that the officer was in home isolation, and WMATA was maintaining contact with him as he recovers.
“We are working closely with the CDC and local health organizations to both monitor the individual and to take precautions to ensure that colleagues in Metro’s District II police facility…and any areas where the Officer may have patrolled, have been cleared as safe for employees and customers,” Wiedefeld said.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, which includes thousands of Metro employees among its members, issued an alert on Mar. 16 with a list of demands it is putting to transit agencies and private contractors to protect workers and riders from COVID-19.
The demands include free testing and treatment for all employees, up to 15 days of paid leave with no penalties against workers for calling in sick, at least daily cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting of vehicles and high-traffic facilities, and protective equipment for workers, such as gloves, goggles, N95 fitted facemasks, alcohol-based hand sanitizing gel, and sterilizing wipes to clean work area surfaces.
The union, which represents over 200,000 transit workers in the U.S. and Canada, says it has been meeting with employers to develop a plan to reduce the risk its members face of contracting the new coronavirus and to determine the employer’s response to reported incidents of possible exposure.
“ATU members – including bus drivers, bus aides and station agents – interact with the public on a daily basis and are at a heightened risk of contracting the coronavirus and other communicable diseases,” ATU said in a notice to members issued Mar. 5. “This requires that we be vigilant, be prepared and come together; and avoid panicking and resorting to fearmongering.”