A growing body of research suggests there is no correlation between riding public transit and transmission of coronavirus, but case numbers among Port Authority of Allegheny County employees continue to rise.
Since Nov. 1 COVID-19 cases at the agency have shot up by almost 70 percent, split about equally between employees who interact with the public and those who do not.
Early in the pandemic Port Authority made sure employees had hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks; when masks were in short supply the agency’s upholstery shop stopped sewing upholstery and pivoted to making masks. As scientists learn more about the virus the agency has expanded its safety measures: everyone must wear a mask, ridership per vehicle is capped. Port Authority shortened maintenance shifts in order to decrease the number of people sharing space at any one time.
“It’s been extremely frustrating to put in place all of the precautions and continue to see cases rise,” said Adam Brandolph, Port Authority’s spokesperson.
With fewer resources than ever, it’s been “impossible” to ensure there are operators for all of the agency’s bus and train service, he said.
“Even on a regular day people call off, get sick,” he said. “The pandemic made that 10 times more difficult, 100 times more difficult.”
Brandolph said some people have asked why Port Authority doesn’t just stop operating: many people have no other way to access critical services, and the buses and trains keep people flowing to the hospitals and grocery stores we all depend on.
Last month the agency decreased service by about five percent in order to have some operators in reserve.
All of this comes as the agency faces economic uncertainty created by the ongoing pandemic. The CARES Act, and reserve funds, allowed Port Authority to balance its budget this summer. Federal and state funding for public transit remains uncertain, but Port Authority is not panicking, Brandolph said.
“We’re not calling for any layoffs like some other systems are, we’re not calling for any massive cuts to service,” like systems in New York and Boston; in Atlanta more than sixty percent of bus routes have already been suspended.
Instead, Port Authority is in a holding pattern: the agency isn’t making plans for any new service or projects, Brandolph said.
Port Authority ridership remains about 60 percent below normal levels and there isn’t much money coming in.