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RIPTA drivers worry about 25 passenger limit during COVID-19 pandemic



You cannot have more than ten people at a funeral. But 26 on a RIPTA bus? Will someone explain the safety of this exemption?

Some bus drivers for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) are worried about a directive to allow as many as 25 passengers on their buses. The number of passengers allowed on a bus is seemingly well over the guidelines established by Governor Gina Raimondo, who has signed an executive order disallowing groups of more than 10 people in gatherings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the current pandemic, and has put strict limits on how many people can be shopping in stores.

Said one driver, who requested anonymity out of fears of retribution from RIPTA management, “When my pet goes to the vet next week, I won’t be allowed in the building. Banks allow only two people by appointment into the lobby. Restaurants, including my coffee shop, have closed because they can’t have more than 10 guests standing at any time. You cannot have more than ten people at a funeral. But 26 on a RIPTA bus? Will someone explain the safety of this exemption?”

Bus driver’s are not getting any answers to their questions from RIPTA management, who tell the drivers that “the order comes from the Governor.”

“I called the Department of Health, who agreed with my concern,” said a driver. “They referred me to the Governor. I called her office twice and was simply told RIPTA is exempted. I asked why such a number is considered safe practice. No answer to that, just, ‘RIPTA is exempted – I’ll relay your concern.’ I asked for a return call explaining why the issues I raised are not a concern to the Governor. No answer. Several of my colleagues have also called the Governor’s office. No one has received an explanation or an assurance of the safety of the RIPTA exemption.”

UpriseRI asked the Governor about the RIPTA bus policy exemption, during her daily COVID-19 press briefing on Friday.

“I don’t believe that it does violate [the executive order],” said Governor Raimondo. “You can have that many. Most of these buses have capacity of three or four times that number. So we are monitoring and if you’re close together on the bus, that’s not okay. But if you can keep six feet apart and be on the bus, public buses are an essential service. It’s the only way some people can get to a doctor, to a hospital, to the grocery store, etc. Nothing is perfect. We want you to stay home if you can, and all the other regulations, but some people have to get around. They don’t have a car, so we have to keep the buses running.”

Barbara Polichetti, Director of Public Affairs at RIPTA responded to UpriseRI’s inquiry, but did not directly address the questions raised by the bus drivers. Here’s the response:

“RIPTA is aware how essential our service is right now as we continue to transport people to key jobs at our hospitals and nursing homes. We also know that people rely on RIPTA to get to grocery stores and pharmacies. We are working to balance the importance of social distancing with the importance of connecting people to key jobs and services.

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“To that end we are taking the following steps:

  • Intensified cleaning and sanitation of all vehicles and facilities
  • Instructing drivers to monitor their routes to make sure there is enough room for proper social distancing
  • If a bus is too full it will not stop and passengers will have to wait for the next one
  • Currently there is more space on our buses in general with daily ridership down from about 58,000 passenger trips per day to roughly 17,000 passenger trips daily.

“We continue to ask riders to use common sense and follow all common sense guidelines put forth by state health officials:

  • Do not go out in public or use public transportation if you are sick
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Only go out when absolutely necessary

“We are in constant communication with the Governor’s office, the RI Department of Health and other state agencies. We are also in contact with peer transit agencies and constantly reviewing and assessing best industry practices during this time. We thank the public for their patience.”

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.