SALEM, Ore. — Cherriots announced it is suspending its bus service starting Tuesday, March 31, until further notice, the agency announced Monday evening.
The late afternoon announcement will disrupt travel for workers and others trying to reach essential appointments who had no warning such a drastic step was coming.
Seven employees at Salem’s public transit agency have tested positive for COVID-19 and ridership has dropped dramatically in recent weeks as more people are complying with Gov. Kate Brown’s. stay home order.
“In the interest of public health and safety, we are temporarily suspending service. We are committed to serving our Mid-Willamette Valley customers, but only if we can assure the well-being of both our riders and our operators,” said General Manager Allan Pollock in a statement Monday evening.
Jon Hunt, vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union 757, which represents 124 Cherriots drivers, said Monday eight district employees were out because of COVID-19 symptoms.
Hunt said drivers are scared.
“For all intents and purposes, they’re violating the governor’s rules every time they come to work,” he said.
Hunt said drivers didn’t feel the transit agency was prepared for the pandemic but added that he didn’t know of a transit agency in the state that was.
He said the union is having more issues with TriMet in Portland.
“We’re not perfect in Salem, but we’re working towards finding something that can work for everybody,” Hunt said.
Officials at the transit district didn’t respond to emails Monday seeking confirmation on the number of infected employees. Agency communications director Patricia Feeny did release that information to The Oregonian/OregonLive, according to the news organization.
But memos provided by the district last week at the request of Salem Reporter showed that Cherriots followed the Lane Transit District’s lead in offering employees with underlying medical conditions or those 65 and older the choice to go on paid administrative leave until Sunday, March 29.
After that, General Manager Allan Pollock said in a memo to employees, those who wanted to remain off the job after Sunday could use vacation time or sick leave until April 5. Employees without paid time off available would not be paid after Sunday if they remained off work, Pollock said in a memo dated March 26.
Hunt said the union discussed with Cherriots leaders Monday how drivers were going to get paid, how to keep them safe and what impacts a potential service shutdown would have.
Hunt said drivers are considered essential during the pandemic, because public transportation allows people to get to doctor’s visits or to the grocery store.
“There’s usually never a parade at the end for the bus driver,” Hunt said.
Cherriots was asking bus riders to distance themselves three to six feet away from others.
“Ridership numbers have plummeted, but we are going to continue to operate as long as we can for those who need us to get to work at the hospital, grocery stores, and pharmacies,” Cherriots wrote on Twitter Monday morning.
The agency urged that people use the buses only for such essential travel. The agency hasn’t responded to requests made last week for information on the number of bus riders in recent weeks.
Two routes in west Salem stopped running on Monday, March 30. Eight additional routes stopped running trips during certain times on Monday.
In Marion County 123 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the Oregon Health Authority. Three people have died.
The memos released by the transit district showed that on Tuesday, March 24, Pollock notified employees that a driver had tested positive for COVID-19. The driver last worked on Friday, March 13, he said.
The following day, Pollock reported to employees that a second operator had fallen ill with the virus.
On March 26, Pollock notified staff that a third employee had tested positive.
That same day, Pollock wrote a memo entitled “We hear you” to address to drivers’ concerns. The memo detailed how the agency would step up its public service announcement efforts, use marketing to increase messaging about social distancing and mark bus seats to put distance between riders.
Cherriots declined to provide details about which routes either driver had taken. The agency wouldn’t answer questions about how long either driver had been on the road prior to getting sick or when they found out about the illnesses. Agency officials also wouldn’t explain why riders on routes staffed by the drivers shouldn’t be told.
On March 17, Cherriots started directing riders to enter through the back door to limit exposure, marking the front of the bus off with caution tape.
The following day, Wednesday March 18, Pollock sent a notice to employees explaining how to get tested for COVID-19.
Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, email@example.com or @daisysaphara.
This article was originally published by the Salem Reporter, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.