RFTA’s coronavirus precautions appear to pay off for bus drivers
A bus driver for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has recovered from COVID-19 after spending two weeks on a ventilator at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, according to CEO Dan Blankenship.
The driver has left the Aspen area to be with his parents in Arkansas, Blankenship told the board of directors Thursday during an update on how the coronavirus is affecting the organization. It was unclear if the driver has left the employ of RFTA for good.
The off-duty driver was taken by ambulance from his apartment at Burlingame to Aspen Valley Hospital on March 22. He was transported to St. Mary’s Hospital for treatment.
RFTA is thankful for the driver’s recovery, Blankenship said.
“It’s a heavy weight that we carry to provide an essential service,” he said.
RFTA has worked with a union for its drivers to make safety precautions for drivers and passengers. Anyone on a bus must wear a face covering. In addition, RFTA has waived fares and is only using buses that have a rear door so there’s no contact between drivers and passengers. Seats at the front of the bus are off limits and only nine passengers can be on a bus in designated seats that are spaced apart.
In addition, the agency is disinfecting buses after each day of service. In the latest move, buses are being retrofit with a “sneeze guard” of clear plastic that can be shut around the driver’s compartment like a curtain. It will be pulled shut when passengers board so that fees can be collected again and so that buses with only a front door can be rotated into service.
The number of RFTA employees out because of symptoms consistent with the coronavirus or possible exposure to people with the virus dropped from 38 on March 23 to two Wednesday, Blankenship said.
“We’ve done a lot of things to get that number down. It’s heartening,” he said.
The two employees are a couple. One of them has possible symptoms of the virus and one was exposed, he said. One of the two is a driver.
RFTA has 365 employees. As of May 8, there were 37 employees absent due to precautions for the coronavirus because they are considered at high risk because of age or ongoing medical conditions, according to a chart provided to the RFTA board. The couple that was potentially symptomatic and exposed is off duty and isolated to see if they have the virus. Another 14 employees are absent for reasons other than the coronavirus threat.
RFTA currently has 132 bus operators available for service and a need for 123 per week. However, ridership is increasing as more businesses have been allowed to operate around the valley. Demand is expected to increase with a phased opening of businesses.
Currently, RFTA incorporates back-up buses into service once a bus reaches its nine-passenger capacity. The back-up buses are parked at strategic stations between Carbondale and Aspen so they can swing into service on short notice. The busy agency anticipates going up to a 15-passenger capacity as demand picks up. Seating can still be arranged to honor social distancing requirements, Blankenship said.
The bigger challenge will be finding enough drivers to increase service.
“Our staff is going to have to face this head on in the not to distant future,” Blankenship said.
New drivers will have to be recruited and trained. That’s tough enough during normal times, Blankenship said, and particularly challenging when the coronavirus is a threat and social distancing is required. RFTA will try to recruit seasonal and part-time drivers into full-time positions to meet its needs.
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Five candidates are running for three seats on the Garfield Re-2 school board this year.