MISSOULA — Missoulians can still use the city bus to get around but they’ll have to take a few precautions.
While some are lucky enough to be able to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, others still need to get to work or the store and have few other options for transportation.
For that reason, Missoula’s Mountain Line bus service is still running, but passengers are asked to change their behavior a bit, said Mountain Line spokeswoman Shanti Johnson.
“Mountain Line is an essential service in our community that benefits us all, and many people depend on us to get to the grocery store, pharmacy, work and home again. Therefore, we will continue to operate service for as long as possible,” Johnson said.
Like everyone these days, Mountain Line managers don’t know how the situation may change day-to-day. It was less than a week ago that Montana had its first known COVID-19 cases, and since then, more offices and businesses have been closing down.
They are still running all bus routes, but may be making changes soon, because some buses are carrying very few riders. Johnson said a few routes or times were getting only one to two riders an hour.
Decision-making is complicated by the fact that it’s spring break, so this is normally a slower time. But students won’t be coming back once the week is over, so the current number of passengers may be the way of the future.
Johnson said Mountain Line has a contingency plan for weather-related challenges, but now, they’re having to modify it for a pandemic.
“We just got out of a two-hour meeting (Tuesday) morning,” Johnson said. “We’re looking at rider numbers, and we’re down quite a bit, even since (Monday). People are heeding the warning to stay out of public places. We’re down to people who are dependent on the bus, so we don’t want to cut off service.”
The first changes will likely be a decrease in frequency on some routes. For example, the Bolt routes run every 15 minutes, so that may change to every 30 minutes. Or reduce the Mountain Line buses that double the routes served by the university bus service.
“That’s taking a lot of buses off the road,” Johnson said. “But we need to make sure we’re following the bus drivers’ union contract and want to make sure no one is suffering financially on our team by decreasing hours.”
However, reducing the amount of hours that drivers are exposed to the public can be beneficial. In the meantime, for the health and safety of bus operators, riders are asked not to sit or stand within 6 feet of the front door of the bus. Mountain Line will have the buffer areas clearly marked starting Tuesday.
Mountain Line employees are also doing everything they can to make sure that the buses are disinfected as often as possible.
“We’re doing a noon wipe-down and we’re focusing on high-touch areas like the pull cords and hand rails. We’re using a strong disinfectant solution that is verified to kill the virus,” Johnson said. “We’re also going above and beyond recommendations for sanitizing the transfer center, doing thorough cleanings more frequently.”
Other than that, riders are asked to use the usual precautions being advised for everyone: cough or sneeze into your elbow, thoroughly wash your hands as often as possible and stay home if you can when you’re sick.
Mountain Line is putting out rider alerts on its website and Facebook page, so riders should check for any changes. Johnson said she’d have an update by the end of business Tuesday.