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A strange quiet has settled over many sections of Bangor in the last month, as concerns about the coronavirus have led all sorts of schools, stores, offices and other businesses to close their doors.
But while many workers have either been laid off or forced to do their jobs from home, those haven’t been options for Tiffany Lister, one of a couple dozen drivers for the Community Connector bus system.
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Like the workers in a few other key industries, Lister and her fellow drivers must still brave the pandemic to offer a vital service: transportation for the remaining people across Greater Bangor who still rely on the bus to reach the grocery store, doctor’s appointments or workplaces that haven’t closed.
While many of the Community Connector’s routes have seen drops in ridership, Lister drives a bus along Union, Hammond and Main streets, past two homeless shelters that serve a number of people with no other means of transportation. The route remains busy enough that she sometimes needs to turn away passengers under one of the new restrictions that have been enacted in recent weeks: a 10-person cap on the number of passengers allowed in each bus.
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“It’s hard when you’re at your 10-person limit, and someone is on the side of the road,” she said. “I have to pull over and tell them, ‘Unfortunately, I can’t take you right now.’ But I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at how people have taken the changes. It has happened so rapid-fire. It is new territory for everyone.”
It has been a scary time for Lister, who has watched the reports from other U.S. cities badly affected by the pandemic. No Community Connector drivers are known to have caught the virus, but bus drivers in other cities have been infected and even died.
After returning home from each day of work, Lister heads straight to the bathroom, showers and immediately washes her clothes. Each night, she disinfects the inside of her car with Lysol and leaves open its windows so that it can air out in her garage. Her husband David also drives a Community Connector bus, but he’s out on medical leave, and her mother-in-law lives with them.
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“I feel like I’m the wildcard in our household,” she said. “I’m going out into public all day, every day, and then going home to them. It has put a new routine on my life.”
But Lister, who is one of the shop stewards for the union representing Community Connector drivers, said that Bangor city officials have been willing to adopt new restrictions and safety measures meant to protect riders and drivers.
Those rules have included requiring any able-bodied passengers to enter the buses from the rear entrances and no longer accepting fares to ensure that passengers don’t encroach on the drivers’ space. The buses are cleaned more frequently.
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Now, the drivers carry individually-wrapped face masks that they have been handing out to riders who are coughing, and beginning Monday, all passengers will be required to cover their mouths and noses with a mask, bandanna or some other garment. The Greater Portland METRO has also just adopted the same rules requiring passengers to wear a protective face covering.
The Bangor union has also sought two other protections that the city has agreed to provide to drivers. It will provide them with additional hazard pay for the 2½ months that started March 15, and it will soon begin outfitting them with protective N95 respirator masks, according to Lister.
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“They’ve been very good and listened to our concerns,” she said.
While public transit workers almost always want to see increased ridership, Lister said that she’s been encouraged by the opposite trend over the last few months, since it means Mainers are taking seriously the new measures that are meant to prevent the virus from spreading.
“It makes me feel good when I have an empty bus, because people are staying home and doing what they’re supposed to,” she said.
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Watch: The difference between a face mask and face covering