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Public transit service reduced, new drive-through coronavirus testing sites planned

Governor Larry Hogan is issuing a proclamation to move the April 28 primary to June 2 because of the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Maryland backed off plans to cut bus service, but public transit passengers will see fewer light rail, subway and MARC trains, while drivers will move to statewide cashless toll collections as part of a series of transportation changes ordered Tuesday by Gov. Larry Hogan to further limit “people-to-people interactions” that might spread the new coronavirus.

Hogan also acted to limit the number of people at BWI Marshall Airport while suspending operations of the state’s Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program so the sites can be used for drive-through testing for the deadly virus.

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The measures, taken after Monday’s shutdown of bars and restaurants except for takeout, came as 20 more cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Maryland, a 54% increase and the largest one-day spike so far, according to the Maryland Department of Health. At least 57 people have confirmed COVID-19 infections in the state.

While the state’s first cases were linked to travel, the growth now — and the greatest concern — is in transmission of the contagious virus within communities.

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The reductions to public transportation will affect those who already struggle to get to their jobs on time and face long commutes even when the system is operating at normal capacity, said Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition.

“These are people who have no access to cars and are completely dependent on public transit for the most important parts of their lives, particularly getting to and from work,” Jordan said.

He urged officials and employers to consider better solutions to the coronavirus outbreak than slowing down an already delay-ridden system, such as allowing staggered work hours.

The Maryland Department of Transportation’s Maryland Transit Administration initially announced Tuesday afternoon that 23 bus routes in the Baltimore area would be suspended, but Tuesday evening said it would delay the move.

“Based on rider feedback, MDOT MTA is delaying any changes to bus service to work with major employers to ensure core services are met,” MTA said in a statement.

Still, other modes remained affected: The light rail and Metro subway will run on Saturday schedules, while MARC commuter trains to Washington and commuter buses will run less frequently as well.

The prospect of changes to public transit added anxiety to those who like many are struggling to care for family and maintain their work schedules, not to mention their own health.

Diana Shebora of Dundalk fought back a runny nose and sniffles as she waited for the Number 63 bus Tuesday afternoon after working at the Amazon warehouse at Sparrows Point, where she said she was being sent home because she was sick. She was worried how potential bus reductions might affect her ability to get to work — and she had to get to work.

“I’m scared because I have kids and elderly people at home,” said Diana Shebora of Dundalk.

Maryland transportation officials said in a statement that decisions on service reductions were made "based on factors including ridership and the need to provide critical access to medical centers, job centers, and student food distribution centers.”

Ridership has dropped substantially “with the number of people working from home and heeding the call for social distancing,” according to transit officials.

Metro, light rail and bus ridership is down by half, officials said.

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Ridership on the MARC commuter train to Washington, for example, is down 70 percent and will run on the more limited "R" schedule with a few additional trains, according to MTA, while commuter bus ridership is down 25% to 30%, and will run on the "S" schedule.

Mobility and paratransit services will continue booking medical trips such as to dialysis, chemotherapy, hospitals, clinics, mental health facilities, pharmacies and grocery stores, officials said.

While other MTA bus service won’t change for now, passengers will enter through the rear door of buses “to minimize operator contact" and are encouraged to pay via the CharmPass mobile ticketing app, CharmCard or paper ticket that will be “visually validated," they said.

The changes can be found here: www.mta.maryland.gov/coronavirus.

At Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the state is eliminating check-in lines and adjusting terminal hours to allow for “deeper cleaning," Hogan said.

Hogan urged Marylanders to avoid unnecessary travel and discouraged people from entering the airport unless they were “traveling passengers,” he said.

All of the state’s tolled highways will move to cashless tolling to limit human interaction that can spread the virus, Hogan said.

Hogan said the state was taking steps to mitigate the effects of the virus while preserving “essential” transportation services.

He said all the Motor Vehicle Administration’s vehicle inspection program sites will halt inspections, and the facilities will be “repurposed” as drive-through coronavirus testing centers.

He said testing “is a problem” because of test kit shortages, as is the availability of personal protective equipment for health care workers.

“Right now there are not enough tests,” he said.

Hogan said all of his actions combined “will potentially stop hundreds of thousands of people from getting the disease.”

He also urged Marylanders to resist hoarding of groceries and supplies.

“I know there is a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress,” he said.

Of the state’s confirmed COVID-19 infections, 37 are between the ages of 18 and 64, and the other 20 are older than 65, Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said in a tweet. No minors have tested positive for the disease in Maryland. And no one has died yet.

The pandemic, which has sickened more than 185,000 and killed 7,300 globally, has been confirmed in nearly half of Maryland’s two dozen counties.

Twenty four people have tested positive in Montgomery County, followed by 14 in Prince George’s County, six in Baltimore County, three in Anne Arundel, three in Howard, two in Harford, one in Baltimore City, and one each in Carroll, Charles, Frederick and Talbot counties, Ricci said.

The statewide numbers appear not to include confirmed cases independently announced by local jurisdictions. Carroll County announced its second confirmed case Tuesday morning and an additional patient — a woman in her 20s — tested positively for the disease in Baltimore City on Monday, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced. An Anne Arundel health officer told the county council Monday night that the county has four cases.

The increase followed an order by Gov. Larry Hogan shutting down all bars, restaurants, movie theaters and gyms beginning Monday after people were sighted celebrating St. Patrick’s Day over the weekend instead of practicing “social distancing” and staying home as requested by officials and health experts.

“We should continue to expect the number of cases to dramatically and rapidly rise,” Hogan said Monday. “This is going to be much harder, take much longer and be much worse than almost anyone is currently understanding."

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Baltimore Sun reporter Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this article.

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