Cherriots edge back into service, but limits keep ridership well below normal

William Shephard rides a Cherriots bus to work on Friday, May 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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Eight weeks after suspending all bus routes, the Salem Area Transit District is running at 57% pre-pandemic level but only for essential trips and riders. 

The decision to halt bus service for six days between March 31 to April 7 was made after a number of drivers were diagnosed with COVID-19. Patricia Feeny, Cherriots director of communications, said the shutdown was imperative even though no other transit system in the state had taken such a measure.

“It was a reset button that proved really effective,” Feeny said. “It helped us see what we’re dealing with, how to make everything safe and plan best practices. It’s paying off now.”

Cherriots has been tracking employees’ COVID-19 tests and self-quarantines. To date, nine employees, including eight drivers, have tested positive for COVID-19. None has required hospitalization.

Bus service remains reduced by both frequency and day schedules.

For example, a route that typically ran service every half hour may now be every hour, and some routes that served Monday through Saturday may now exclude Saturdays.

Additionally, buses have new capacity limits of up to 10 passengers at any given time, and when a bus becomes full, the marquis on the front of the bus will announce “drop-off only” status.

Riders waiting to board will have to wait for the next bus with enough room. As of April 10, all riders must wear a cloth or paper mask and board through the back door to avoid contact between passengers and drivers.

And riders are supposed to be for essential workers or purposes.

“We define those riders as grocery store workers, health care workers, first responders getting essential rides,” said Feeny. “Essential trips for the public would be to pharmacies, medical offices, grocery stores.”

Cherriots continues to provide the service for free, waiving fares that typically provide 3% of the transit agency’s revenue.

Feeny said it remains uncertain when the essential riders and trips rule will be lifted, but that the definition of “essential” could broaden as more businesses are allowed to open in Marion and Polk counties.

There is no formula for enforcing the essential rule, but security teams at transit centers ask people where they are going, and signs are posted as reminders that the Cherriots are for essential trips only. They’ve also started a “6 Feet Apart” button campaign that promotes social distancing.

“It’s the honor system. If you have an essential trip, we’re happy to have you on board,” Feeny said. 

Cherriots ridership is down approximately 80 to 90 percent, but during a pandemic, Feeny said that’s not a bad thing.

This Memorial Day was to have been the first holiday service in Cherriots’ 40 years of service. It was part of a long-term service expansion plan that kicked off in September with Saturdays and had a goal for servicing Sundays too.

“Obviously that path has changed. We don’t know when the expansion plan will resume, Feeny said. “There’s a lot of speculation but we may have to postpone the Sunday and holiday service until next spring. It would be great if we can implement it sooner, but we’re taking a very conservative, realistic approach to this.”

Cherriots’ goal is to restore full service Monday through Saturday as soon as it’s safe, but the agency is being cautious.

“We’re watching and seeing what happens. If there is a resurgence [of the virus] in the fall that would be very frightening. That’s why we’re approaching our return to our workforce very cautiously.” She said.

Six people are on Cherriots’ executive team, and most have been working from home following government pandemic guidelines. On Tuesday the agency will hold a virtual meeting with others from across the district including operations, IT and customer service to discuss a reopening plan, but Feeny doubts it will result in bringing everyone back to work full-time in the office before year’s end. 

So far Cherriots has not laid off any employees. Instead, they’ve found new jobs for drivers.

“Our new slogan is if you’re not driving, you’re cleaning,” Feeny said, while working in the downtown Salem office Thursday.

From her window five stories up from the street, she can see Salem’s downtown transit center. There are six buses stopped and a few riders waiting. But before they can board, the buses must be completely empty. A cleaning team goes in wearing yellow safety vests, gloves and masks to sanitize the interiors. 

Some operators raised concern that face masks alone are not enough protection when in close contact with passengers who need help with mobility devices like wheelchairs. That’s when Michael Majors, Cherriots safety and loss specialist figured out how to make face shields using an old box of overhead projector transparency sheets for the shields, a three-hole punch and his own 3D printer to make head bands. 

Cherriots is planning to install plexiglass barriers between the driver and the front door. They’ve been using caution tape, but that doesn’t create physical protection.

“The plexiglass shields are getting installed,” Feeny said. “We are working on what that plan will look like, looking at costs. But it should be happening soon.”

The financial impact of COVID-19 on Cherriots, which is mostly supported by federal funds, is unclear. The agency is tracking every dollar spent for pandemic-related necessities like disinfectants and PPE to seek federal reimbursement. Spending on health and safety measures is expected to continue, putting a new twist on the safety of Salem-area public transit.

“If you’re using public transportation, there’s always going to be a risk, but the approach we are taking now is probably going to be standard going forward,” Feeny said. “We cleaned the buses before, but not to the level they are now. We’ve really maximized that protocol level. They were swept out, but not all the touch points, all the hard surfaces, all the door handles – like we’re doing now.”

David Nichols-Alarcon, a driver with Cherriots, stops the bus at a stop along route four on Friday, May 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Gary Weaver, a transit operator with Cherriots, cleans a bus after it returned from a route on Friday, May 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Gary Weaver, a transit operator with Cherriots, steps off of a freshly cleaned bus on Friday, May 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Caution tape closes off seats on a Cherriots bus to guide social distancing. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

David Nichols-Alarcon, a driver with Cherriots, steps off the bus to pull his mask down and take a drink while holding at a stop to keep on schedule. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Caution tape closes off seats on a Cherriots bus to guide social distancing. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Stephen Custer, marketing coordinator with Cherriots, wears a button reminding staff and riders to maintain social distancing on Friday, May 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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