When shelter in place became the law of the land in Humboldt County back in mid-March, shuttering much of the local economy and sending most people home, a swath of businesses were deemed "essential" and allowed to keep operating. These included grocery and hardware stores, auto mechanics, pharmacies and takeout restaurants.
The exemption also extended to the Humboldt Transit Authority, which oversees the eight county bus routes that combine to get a lot of essential employees — especially those filling minimum wage jobs in the service sector — to work. There was just one catch, according to HTA General Manager Greg Pratt: The authority could not find personal protective equipment for its drivers.
"We had zero PPE," he said. "At that point, you couldn't find a mask."
So HTA got creative, using reams of clear plastic to completely seal off the very front of its buses, including the driver's areas, from the rest, creating a safety bubble from which the driver could operate the bus without fear of infection. This meant riders could only on- and off-load from the back of the bus, so HTA temporarily waved its fees, recognizing people needed to get to work.
"If you're working in an essential service and need to get to a job, we wanted to get you there," Pratt says.
Over time, however, that approach changed, as HTA was able to acquire PPE to outfit its drivers and some passengers began taking advantage of the free rides to escape the elements for a few hours and maybe take a nap. On May 18, HTA resumed charging fares in a step toward normalcy. Two months later, though, things remain anything but, as concerns have shifted to passenger safety and the long-term viability of the authority's routes amid a pandemic that shows no signs of letting up in the near future.
How this plays out could have reverberating impacts throughout Humboldt County, where about 20 percent of households live in poverty, making less than $21,720 for a family of three, spread across thousands of miles of rural terrain, and three percent of households report not owning a car. And that's to say nothing of the service HTA provides Humboldt County's homeless residents, many of whom have to travel long distances to access medical care and social services.
Through myriad recommendations about avoiding COVID-19, public health officials have hit a recurring theme: Avoid enclosed spaces with people from multiple households. Buses, like most public transit, fit the description.
Keenly aware of the risks posed by COVID-19, Richard Mouser said he'd had been camping near Redcrest earlier this month when he decided to hop a bus into Eureka to do some shopping and take care of a few things. He said he was pleased when boarding the bus to find the driver, sitting behind a small Plexiglas shield and wearing a mask. But his feelings quickly shifted when the bus started moving and the driver pulled the mask from his nose and mouth.
"I saw him drop the mask and I sat down and stewed for about an hour. ... Then the driver cracks his window and he's got fresh air coming at him, blowing his air at us," Mouser said, adding that he decided to confront the driver about it once the bus stopped at his final destination. "I said, 'Young man, I'm in my 60s and if you value your job as much as I value my life, please don't let me see you again without that mask on.' Then he started (verbally) coming at me. His point was that he had permission to take that mask off."
And it turns out, the driver did have permission, as Mouser would find when he contacted Pratt and HTA.
Pratt told the Journal some of HTA's drivers who wear eyeglasses had complained about masks making them fog up, causing visibility problems and safety concerns.
"The drivers who wear glasses, we're not requiring them to wear a mask while driving," he said. "They have to wear them when boarding or offloading passengers. But when you're driving eight, nine hours a day, it only takes one time for something to happen. If you can't safely do your job with a mask, there's certain precautions that need to be taken."
But Pratt said no passengers are allowed to sit within 7 feet of the driver, so physical distancing is maintained during any periods when the driver isn't masked. Pratt said HTA is taking other safety precautions, too, requiring passengers to be masked at all times, installing hand sanitizer dispensers in the front and backs of busses, and cleaning them thoroughly — including by "fogging" them with an Environmental Protection Agency approved cleaning solution — every night. He said staff tried using caution tape to close some seating rows to maintain physical distancing but passengers ripped it down, prompting staff to just put up signs instead. Those, Pratt said, seem to be working.
"I don't know why the caution tape didn't work — it might just be a, 'You can't tell me what to do' kind of thing," he said.
Asked about the prospect of drivers dropping their facial coverings while buses are on the move and dozens and dozens of people board and offload throughout the day, Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich said she'd simply like to see everyone wearing facial coverings.
"I would say I want both drivers to be protected and the people around them to be protected," she said. "I think it's important that everyone wear a facial covering as much as possible. Obviously, we want drivers to be safe in their driving. That's very important. However, ... there are a lot of different kinds of masks people can use. I get that some are problematic, fogging up your glasses, that type of thing. There are others that are better. So I encourage them — strongly — to identify masks that work for them, that allow them to be safe in their workplace and also help contribute to the safety of the community."
Frankovich also reminded that in situations where facial coverings aren't feasible — or just aren't being worn — maintaining at least 6 feet of physical space becomes even more important.
Pratt said HTA has been able to keep plenty of open spaces on its buses, though that might become a big problem in the not-too-distant future.
Pratt said that ridership across all routes is down roughly 70 percent amid the pandemic, taking the average number on a bus at any given time from 34 down to nine. While that's good for physical distancing, it's potentially very bad for the HTA's bottom line.
HTA operates via revenue from a variety of sources. There are state transportation grants, as well as local transportation fund dollars that come via a percentage — about 0.25 percent — of state sales tax, which then trickle back to HTA through the Humboldt County Association of Governments. There are joint powers authorities with the county and the cities of Arcata, Eureka, Trinidad, Fortuna and Rio Dell. Because these funds are a percentage of sales tax receipts, most expect them to take a sizeable hit for the foreseeable future as COVID-19 has led to scores of shuttered businesses and record unemployment numbers. (First quarter projections, which include just a month and a half of shelter-in-place restrictions, are already down 12 to 24 percent in some parts of the county, according to state reports.)
But roughly 20 percent of HTA's operating revenue comes via fares. In a typical month, Pratt said, the authority brings in about $120,000 in fares but since shelter in place, that number has dropped to roughly $30,000. The biggest hit, he said, has been from students since schools have closed. About 50 percent of the authority's riders are students at Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods, he said, and then there are high school students who bus up daily from Southern Humboldt or west to Arcata High School from Hoopa and Willow Creek.
"The students are the ones who actually make those systems work," he said.
In the short term, Pratt said HTA will be OK. He said it's in line to receive some CARES Act funds and other financial aid that will carry it through the fiscal year that just started. But if CR, HSU and local schools remain shut down through much or all of the coming year, that could have a devastating impact on buses in Humboldt County.
But there's not much HTA can do at this point, Pratt said, except hope for a vaccine.
"It's not like we can go out there and advertise and get more passengers," he said. "Yes, we need those fares but we don't want full buses. We can't have full buses."
The Community Voices Coalition is a project funded by Humboldt Area Foundation and Wild Rivers Community Foundation to support local journalism. This story was produced by the North Coast Journal newsroom with full editorial independence and control.