COVID-19 Creates New Challenges for MST
Though COVID-19 impacted Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST) operations in 2020, the agency’s high standards of service never wavered.
This spring, for example, one MST driver noticed two young girls who looked lost. The driver alerted authorities, who reunited the girls with their parents.
“In the middle of a pandemic, it might have been reasonable for someone to focus on their own anxieties. But, this driver recognized a potentially dangerous situation and responded like a true professional,” says MST Chief Operating Officer Robert Weber. “This year saw many stories where MST employees provided outstanding service while managing through an unprecedented crisis.”
Practice drills and existing protocols ensured MST’s COVID-19 response was timely and informed. In 2014, during the hepatitis outbreak, the agency instituted communicable disease training and personal protective equipment (PPE) policies for drivers. Since then, crews have consistently cleaned buses and facilities with hospital-grade disinfectants.
MST also regularly reviews its emergency response plans, which outline responsibilities related to wildfires, earthquakes, pandemics and other incidents.
“While we regularly prepare for conventional emergency scenarios, like natural-disaster or mass-casualty events, and not necessarily a response to a global pandemic, our emergency structure stayed virtually the same and proved to be very adaptable to this crisis,” says Weber.
With an emergency structure in place, MST implemented pandemic safety procedures before California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency for the state. As shelter-in-place rules unfolded and travel slowed, the agency paused some non-essential routes and immediately put practices in place to protect employees and the essential workers using transit. These immediate steps included mandatory face coverings, rear-door boarding, and the waiving of on-board fare collection. Free fares continued from mid-March through August 1.
“MST never stopped providing service. We remained a vital transit link for essential workers and individuals making essential trips to medical facilities, grocery stores and important appointments,” says Weber.
While changing routes and enhancing safety measures, MST also stepped up to support its neighbors. The agency parked Wi-Fi-enabled buses in rural and disadvantaged Monterey County communities with inadequate internet coverage, providing hotspots for remote learners. With some routes on hiatus, MST drivers and vehicles helped Meals on Wheels of the Salinas Valley deliver 8,000 meals to seniors and individuals with disabilities. MST donated two used minibuses to Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas (CSVS), which partnered with the Grower- Shipper Association of Central California to bring mobile COVID-19 testing facilities to Monterey County’s essential agricultural workers.
Plastic Shields & PPE
Transit administrators also distributed 7,500 masks from the federal government to regional farmworker organizations, who put them into the hands of local families.
MST donated additional vehicles to the Veterans Transition Center, which connects homeless veterans with food, shelter and medical services, and to Rancho Cielo, which trains at-risk youth for hospitality jobs. And, when COVID-19 proved a threat to volunteer drivers, MST used CARES Act funds to assist veterans traveling from Marina to the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.
Resilience and Recovery
Since many routes paused in April, MST ridership has returned to 60% of pre-pandemic levels. As businesses reopen and travel slowly rebounds, teams continue to refine safety guidelines and services.
What doesn’t change is MST’s commitment to providing affordable, reliable and safe mobility options to all, including healthcare professionals, essential workers, veterans, seniors and individuals with disabilities.
To protect passengers and drivers, MST continues cleaning buses and transit centers with an antiviral disinfectant. Crew members use hand-held foggers to spray germicide in vehicles each night and periodically throughout the day. The agency encouraged rear boarding when fares were free, requires face coverings for riders over age 12, and provides PPE to employees. MST also installed plastic shields in the driver compartment as an additional layer of protection to safeguard operators.
MST buses are now outfitted with hand sanitizer dispensers, and a new contactless fare demonstration program lets passengers skip cash and coin payments (see contactless fare story). By keeping bus windows open whenever possible, the air in each vehicle can be completely refreshed within two minutes. MST also equipped its buses with MERV 7-rated air filters, which reduces passengers’ in-cabin contaminant exposure and captures particles as small as mold spores and cement dust. The district monitors ridership numbers and adds buses to high-demand routes, giving passengers more space to spread out.
MST shares service and safety updates on its website and social media channels, and a survey launched this summer offered another avenue for passenger, employee and community feedback.
“MST has had a very effective pandemic response, and while I’m proud and thankful that it worked out this way, ours is not an unusual story.” Says Weber.
A September 2020 study commissioned by the American Public Transportation Association found no direct correlation between urban public transit use and COVID-19 transmission.
“The face coverings, extra cleaning, increased ventilation and passenger separation on board really make a difference,” says Weber. “Public transit has been proven safer than crowded events and enclosed areas, whether it’s in Hong Kong, Paris, New York or Monterey.”