The Maryland Transit Administration closed the Eastern bus division in Baltimore after one its drivers tested positive for the new coronavirus.
The Maryland Department of Transportation and the MTA, in a release, confirmed the driver’s diagnosis, first disclosed by the president of the local union that represents drivers.
“MDOT MTA is working with health officials for formal verification," according to the release. “The operator last reported to work six days ago on Thursday, March 19. Buses are disinfected daily. Out of an abundance of caution, MDOT MTA has closed the Eastern bus division so that it can undergo a thorough cleaning and disinfecting.”
Michael McMillan, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, said MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn called him about 10 p.m. Tuesday to inform him that a driver had tested positive for the new, highly contagious respiratory illness.
McMillan said Tuesday night the MTA was not doing enough to protect other staff and riders in light of the driver’s diagnosis, and hasn’t been doing enough to keep drivers safe for weeks.
Quinn would not identify the driver to McMillan but said she worked out of the Eastern Division, on Eastern Avenue. Buses traverse the city from there and go into the surrounding county, McMillan said.
The routes affected by the closure include:
» CityLink Navy, Orange, Blue, Pink, Lime and Gold
» LocalLink 21, 22, 28, 36, 56, 59, 62, 63, and 65
» Express BusLink 105, 120, and 160
Dozens of out-of-service buses could be seen Wednesday parked at the Eastern Division lot.
The shutdown disrupted travel for many people going to and from work or gathering groceries. Outside the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, the service interruptions cost Linda Wise hours of her day — and she still didn’t feel like the MTA had taken enough precautions to safeguard passengers’ health.
Wise wheeled a cart with reusable grocery bags under a bus-stop awning, out of the drizzling rain, and checked her phone to find out when the next CityLink Orange bus would arrive.
“Thirty-eight minutes,” she said. “That’s if it comes.”
Wise, a 32-year-old mover and hauler, said she usually could take one bus, LocalLink 62, from her home in Turner Station to Essex, where she was headed to pick up groceries and toiletries from a free food pantry offered by Essex United Methodist Church. Because the 62 was one of several routes interrupted Wednesday, Wise had to take the CityLink Navy to Highlandtown, catch the Blue a few blocks to Bayview, then get on the Orange to Essex.
“The total of just an hour ride turns into about four hours for me,” Wise said. “The bus schedule’s really messed up from this.”
James Chisholm was waiting for a late LocalLink 22 bus on Eastern Avenue to take him to a doctor’s appointment Wednesday.
“Otherwise,” he said, “I’d have been in the house.”
Chisholm, 55, lives off North Avenue in East Baltimore and mostly takes the 22 and the CityLink Red. Every time he boards a bus, he wonders how well Maryland’s transit system is protecting riders from the coronavirus.
“By them putting everybody on the back of the bus, it’s crowded,” he said. “The bus driver’s safe, but the passengers are not, cause they’re still sitting together.”
City Council President Brandon Scott said the division where the driver worked must be closed “until fully cleaned." He also said MTA should identify everyone the operator was in contact with “to ensure they get the medical attention and information needed,” and that all operators are provided with necessary protective gear.
“It is unacceptable that they don’t have what they need now,” he said.
McMillan said he has been asking the MTA for three weeks to supply drivers with masks and other protective gear, and asking them to introduce measures at the divisions and on buses to emphasize social distancing practices.
Still, drivers have no equipment, he said, and social distancing measures — including the one urging riders to board through the rear door — have failed.
While Gov. Larry Hogan has said no more than 10 people should be in a room at the same time anywhere in the state, buses are still routinely filling up with as many as four times that figure.
“Operators have been taking buses out with 20 to 40 people on a bus at any given time, and there is no way for the operator to police it themselves at all,” McMillan said. “Nobody is advocating for a total shutdown at all, but we want to do our part to flatten that curve.”
McMillan said Quinn met with him a month ago to assure him the MTA would do everything in its power to quarantine sick employees and isolate others they came into contact with in the event a coronavirus case was identified among staff. He also said facilities would get a deep clean.
However, McMillan said that was not happening Tuesday night. “They’re going back on their word,” he said.
Right after he got off the phone with Quinn, McMillan said he drove to the Eastern Division, and things were carrying on as usual. He said one person was at the facility and “was taking Lysol wipes that you can buy from the Giant, and was wiping one surface at a time.”
The union has about 3,000 members. There are four bus divisions. At peak times, there can be as many as 40 bus operators working in a division at a time, McMillan said.
The MTA should have had a crew there to “clean it from top to bottom,” and a team from the health department to “find out who this operator has been in contact with,” he said.
“I’m trying to stop a spread,” McMillan said. “They don’t know what to do or how to do it.”
Instead, McMillan said another top MTA administrator called him, told him he shouldn’t be telling operators about their colleague’s diagnosis, and “threatened the operators and the mechanics” in the division — “that if they refuse to work at this time, in this contaminated division, that disciplinary action would be taken against them.”
The department did not respond to questions about McMillan’s claims.