BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – With most of the world just about shut down right now, all anyone can talk about is the coronavirus. But that’s not happening on the NFTA bus that George Toledo drives.
“I’ve noticed not many people are talking with each other,” Toledo said. “Everybody is staying as many seats apart as they can.”
It’s just another form of social distancing as people look to curb the spread of the contagious virus that has now infected more than 1,700 people across Western New York. Toledo continues to report to work each day, mask in hand just in case. He admits a little more than a month ago, as people were still learning about the term “COVID-19”, he couldn’t help but think about how likely it might be that someone step onto his bus and pass it along to him.
“I did,” he said. “At first, it was very new to everybody. Everybody had to take precautions. But the adjustments that we’ve made, it’s been a lot easier on my mind.”
Some of those adjustments are very conspicuous.
“Probably the most dramatic has been the rear-boarding,” said Helen Tederous, NFTA spokesperson. “That was meant to end the close proximity between the operator and the passenger.”
The front door is still available to those in wheelchairs. But since it is closed to everyone else, fares are suspended. There is also a yellow chain across the front of the bus, blocking passengers from getting anywhere near the driver.
To date, five NFTA employees have contracted the disease, including two transit officers, two administrative staffers, and one Metro Rail worker. No bus drivers have tested positive. To help keep those numbers down, the authority has been asking people to only ride for essential purposes.
“We’ve seen a plateau in our ridership,” Tederous said. “We’re down just short of 80 percent.”
Toledo admits it’s unusual to be driving around an empty bus, but he calls it “comfortable”.
“Seems safer, seems smarter,” he says.
Jeff Richardson, the president of ATU Local 1342, which represents the bus drivers, tells News 4 he is concerned that there are still too many non-essential riders. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz was asked about that earlier this week.
“I did talk to (NFTA Executive Director) Kim Minkel last week,” Poloncarz said during one of his coronavirus briefings. “Kim said based on their own data, that 98 percent of the individuals that were on the bus were legitimately going to and from work or legitimate business. They weren’t just joyriders.”
Toledo knows there are only so many precautions that he can take. He and his fellow drivers reliant on each person stepping onto the bus to do their part.
“I have the same faith in humanity in general,” Toledo said. “We’re all playing safe. The fact that ridership is down is proof that we are trying to outsmart this virus and play safe.”