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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

LOS ANGELES—A county supervisor urged Metro Monday to require face coverings for everyone riding buses and trains, in order to protect drivers and passengers from the coronavirus.

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who along with the other four county supervisors holds a seat on the 13-member Metro board, wrote a letter to CEO Phil Washington.

"Given what we know about the COVID-19 virus, the policy of not requiring face coverings puts both Metro passengers and bus drivers at risk," Hahn wrote.

Hahn asked Washington to take action immediately rather than waiting for the board's next meeting, set for May 28.

"Because so many other essential workers, from grocery store employees to restaurant workers, rely on Metro to get to and from work, Metro's decision not to require face coverings threatens to compound the spread of this virus across our county," Hahn wrote.

Metro spokesman Dave Sotero told City News Service that Washington received Hahn's letter and will be discussing it with the senior leadership team on Tuesday morning.

As on Monday, Metro had confirmed 57 coronavirus cases, including contractors, vendors and seven people identified as bus drivers.

Hahn said her outreach was spurred by a Los Angeles Times article offering accounts of Metro bus drivers fearful about their health and that of their passengers.

While an existing public health order requires customers to wear face coverings at grocery and drug stores and other essential businesses, Metro has given bus drivers the responsibility to decide whether to allow passengers on board without masks or scarves covering their faces.

The transit authority released a statement April 6 recommending that all passengers wear non-medical face coverings and also asked "everyone to continue limiting travel to only essential trips, maintain physical distance from others, wash hands frequently and use other good hygiene practices."

Metro is also requiring all bus operators to use the transparent protective barrier that helps isolate them.

Some of the dozen drivers who spoke to The Times said that despite a steep decline in ridership since the pandemic began, some lines remain too crowded to enforce social distancing.

One driver from a yard in Boyle Heights noted that grocery, health care and other "essential" workers ride the buses.

"These elected officials are calling medical workers heroes and grocery workers heroes and firefighters heroes. Yes, they are. But bus operators are heroes, too. Literally, we are the front line," the driver told the newspaper.

Drivers also said there have been periodic shortages of masks, hand sanitizer and other protective gear at Metro bus yards.

The transit authority has ordered more than 1 million units of protective items and distributed tens of thousands of masks to its employees, according to Sotero, who told The Times that the drivers are "truly dedicated and heroic public servants." However, requiring masks on all routes would be "physically impractical," Sotero told the newspaper.

Weekday ridership has fallen about 64% on Metro buses and 76% on rail lines, though the numbers fluctuate on a weekly basis, according to Sotero.

"Riders are doing exactly what they're supposed to do: they are staying at home and traveling only when it is essential for them to do so," he said.

The Times reported that a Santa Clarita Transit bus driver died in March of complications from COVID-19, and the death toll of transit workers nationwide is more than 100 people -- including more than 80 in New York.