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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

When the Bus is Your Only Option for Getting Around During Coronavirus Pandemic

photo of Yolanda Jones
Yolanda Jones relies on SARTA buses to get around Canton.

For now, Ohio’s patchwork of public transit agencies continues to operate — one of the services deemed essential in this age of the coronavirus. The practical realities have changed for public transit and for many who rely on it.

Long before the coronavirus upended the lives of all Ohioans, getting around Canton was complicated for Yolanda Jones. She was one of about a half dozen people still riding one of the public buses around Canton last week.

“I have to catch the bus every day to work, out to North Canton and that’s hard. Two hours, and I get on three different buses.”

Just getting to the nearest grocery store, the Walmart about a mile from her northeast Canton home, takes two SARTAbuses and about a half hour each way. She has six kids, which helps with carrying the groceries home and complicates everything else. And these days, the WIC offices — the nutritional supplement program for women, infants and children — is advising parents not to bring their children along.

“You got to do what you got to do, as parents and, you know, just handling business.”

The good news, since last week, is that the SARTA trips, like Metro in Akron and most other public transit agencies in Northeast Ohio, are now free. SARTA CEO Kirt Conrad says that was a nod to the reality of his passenger’s lives.

“We know that this is unprecedented and we want to just try to do as much as we can to help people in our community.”

But Conrad acknowledges ridership has dropped dramatically and keeping the buses going has gotten considerably more complicated. “I was just downstairs helping out a little bit ago, may hands smell like disinfectant…”

Conrad says the agency has been following special protocols for more than a week with hospital-grade disinfectant for its buses and transit centers. And starting Monday, it’s been rotating its buses more frequently, swapping them out every other trip. The agency also has people enter and exit toward the rear of the bus, to ensure a distance from the drivers. Office staff is working from home, and because of the drop in ridership, some drivers also have been cut back as well.

Among the transportation SARTA provides is its Proline, an individually scheduled service to get people to medical appointments. That’s been cut about 40% as many of those appointments are being rescheduled or shifted to telemedical visits. But Conrad says SARTA remains crucial for those with the fewest options.

“The only thing that is left now are people going to dialysis, some people going to work or a grocery store and that’s about it. Those people there are the most fragile in our community.”

And even while it’s cutting back in some ways, SARTA is asking people to call its customer service office if they have suggestions of ways it can expand to meet the constantly evolving needs of the community.

Yolanda Jones' reality
Yolanda Jones, at least as of today, no longer needs SARTA to get her to work. The restaurant at the Belden Village mall where she was employed is laying people off as Gov. Mike DeWine’s order to stay home except for essential trips takes effect.

Jones says she understands. She was nervous even before the governor’s order. Stark County had one of the first cases of Covid 19 diagnosed in the state, and this week reported its first death. “It’s scary. At the same times, my hands be raw from washing … I got to wash them constantly. I don’t halfway like taking money from anybody but I have to but I just be conscious of whatever.”

That was last week. This week, Jones is still riding the bus. She can’t afford to be out of work even with unemployment.

“I still need to keep working to provide for my family. And now that this is going on, we don’t know how long this is going to last.” 

So, she’s looking for a new job. Without a car, delivering food or other products isn’t even a possibility. She hears a local motel is hiring. And if she gets the job, she says SARTA will be what it has been for her — a needed connection to food, a paycheck and the other necessities of life.

More on the order by Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton and its impact on public transit:

The stay-at-home, or shelter-in-place order, which took effect at 11:59 Monday night, allows public transit to continue to operate but mandates riders use it only for essential purposes and abide by social distancing rules such as maintaining a six-foot distance from other passengers and the drivers.

The state used the Homeland Security guidelines. Essential business are those deemed necessary for life and health, including grocery stores, gas stations, hospitals and public transit systems. Each business that stays open must follow good protocol in regard to health.

Only essential travel — such as getting to work or getting food and prescriptions — is permitted, and people riding public transit must comply with social distancing requirements "to the greatest extent feasible.”

M.L. Schultze is a freelance journalist. She spent 25 years at The Repository in Canton where she was managing editor for nearly a decade, then served as WKSU's news director and digital editor until her retirement.