RFTA pumps $100,000 into battle to prevent coronavirus spread on Aspen-area buses

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s board of directors on Thursday approved budgeting $100,000 to prevent the spread of coronavirus on the public bus system.

Even before the expenditure, RFTA started disinfecting buses used in the Aspen area with a virucide every day. The “fogging” operations also will begin this week at RFTA’s facility in Glenwood Springs.

“Our target is to be fogging everything by Sunday,” Dan Blankenship, RFTA’s CEO, said Thursday.

Workers in the maintenance department in Aspen have been using sprayers that provide a fog of the disinfectant on the interior of buses. Any buses in the fleet that haven’t been fogged are getting a thorough wipe-down on handrails in the aisles and the seats.

The buses are fogged every day in Aspen as they are lined up for refueling. They must be aired out by opening windows and using fans for two hours.

“It’s huge,” Blankenship said. “It’s not the most glamorous job in the Roaring Fork Valley.”

While the maintenance department has taken up most of the duty, RFTA must also rely on temporary worker services and hire more seasonal workers, Blankenship said. That’s part of the reason for the supplemental budget appropriation.

The disinfectant regimen also covers bus stations, ticket vending machines and other facilities.

RFTA also is taking steps to keep drivers safe. Seats in the front three rows of larger buses are being roped off to create a buffer between passengers and drivers. A white line of demarcation for passengers to be standing while the bus is moving also has been moved back. Signs will be placed on fare boxes telling people to stay off buses if they are sick.

The “first line of defense” is asking people to be considerate, Blankenship said.

Ed Cortez, the president of the local chapter of the drivers’ union, credited RFTA leadership for meeting with union representatives and getting their input on precautions.

“We’ve done everything we can do at this point to protect our drivers and protect our passengers,” Cortez said.

The union’s concern is keeping drivers safe from contracting the virus from a passenger and preventing turning the drivers into carriers who could spread the virus.

“We are on the front line every day,” Cortez said. “We see people who are coming onto the bus sick every day, whether or not they have the virus.”

Blankenship said 35% of RFTA drivers are age 65 or older, which is listed in some reports as at-risk to the virus. RFTA is urging any drivers who experience symptoms of the virus to stay home and use sick time. Those who don’t have enough accrued sick time can borrow ahead.

Seasonal workers who don’t receive sick time or vacation will be given a “modest amount” of sick time due to the crisis.

RFTA hasn’t received notification from state or local health officials that the 10 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Pitkin County reported that they rode buses. However, Blankenship thinks it is a good possibility that tourists staying in Aspen were riding skier shuttles to Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk or Snowmass during their stay.

So far, RFTA hasn’t noticed a drop in passengers, but the coronavirus situation has evolved dramatically in the past two days.

If the number of passengers plummets or there is a shortage of drivers due to illness, RFTA has three levels of contingency plans in place for service cuts. First steps might include reducing skier shuttles or eliminating redundancy in commuter service, Blankenship said.

RFTA’s board members complimented the staff for its preparations.

“To the entire team that’s worked on the plan, the board wants to thank each and every one of you,” said board chair Markey Butler, who is the mayor of Snowmass Village.

The board passed a resolution that will allow it to conduct meetings remotely through the rest of 2020 “in case social distancing measures become advisable.”

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