Mark Thomas worries about his wife’s health the most.
The Barrie Transit driver is one of many essential workers mostly left out of conversations surrounding the potential dangers of dealing with the public during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, with transit being free in Barrie since March 20 and the local vulnerable population with few places to turn during the day, he’s noticed an uptick in the area homeless congregating on city buses, which brings with it serious concerns about health and safety.
“It’s a big change. This pandemic has changed my life so much,” said Thomas. “I have to be very careful. I’ve worked every day of this pandemic. I never took a day off. I’ve had to support my wife and my kids.”
Thomas is diabetic. His wife, who works at Home Depot, is a cancer survivor. These pre-existing conditions make Thomas more aware of his responsibility to stay safe.
“I work all day and when I come home I take all my clothes and put them directly into the laundry,” he said. “I’m so worried about my wife, because she has to be working as well so we can pay the bills.”
Thomas says transit workers are given gloves, cleaning products and masks to help protect them. To further encourage physical distancing, every other seat on city buses are taped off and buses are limited to no more than 15 passengers. Riders must board and exit the bus from the rear door only while people with accessible needs can continue to board using the front doors.
However, Thomas says that just because physical distancing is encouraged doesn’t mean it’s actually happening.
“The signs on the bus say ‘Essential Service Only,’ but they don’t help that much because some people understand, but some don’t,” he said. “I understand there are a lot of people out there who are homeless and they need somewhere to go. I know we have a lot of shelters but a lot of these people don’t want to go into those shelters. We need to do something to take care of these people.
“Myself and other transit drivers, we have been out there every single day dealing with a lot of situations,” he added.
Thomas says that since the beginning of the pandemic when libraries and other common spaces closed, some area homeless instead get on the buses and ride around all day.
“People have also been abusive to us on the streets and on the buses,” he said.
In March, 10 city transit workers walked off the job, citing safety concerns due to COVID-19. According to city officials, staff worked to address concerns at that time. For our full story on that, click here.
Brent Forsyth, the city's director of transit and parking strategy, says that while the transit service provider does regular training with operators, it has seen increased ridership during the pandemic from people riding buses throughout the day without an end destination.
“Our transit service provider... has been working closely throughout the COVID pandemic to ensure both staff and the public receive support,” said Forsyth. “The city recognizes the impact the COVID pandemic has had on the community and especially on the vulnerable sector with most public facilities having to close.”
Looking forward, Thomas hopes the city will consider putting more in place to protect drivers.
“Some kind of protective plexiglass barrier would help. A lot of places are using those. There are lots of times where passengers get on the bus, and cough without covering their mouth, and it’s unsafe for us as drivers,” he said.