For Marisela Norte, commuting to work at a Mid-Wilshire museum three days a week in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic means careful observation, a knowledge of alternate routes, and allowing for more travel time than she once did. Norte takes the 720 Rapid, the notoriously crowded bus line with the bulk of its route traversing Wilshire Boulevard. Even with ridership down across Los Angeles Metro as a side effect of the pandemic, the 720 isn’t an easy ride.
“You’re living in that constant state of trying to manage how are you going to get to work,” Norte says. Sometimes, if a bus is already fairly full and there’s a crowd waiting, the driver won’t stop. When one does open its doors, Norte will count to see how many people are on board. If there are fewer people exiting than boarding the bus, she’ll hang out for the next one. She’ll notice whether or not there are available seats. “If there are already people standing, then I know that I can’t get on because it’s not safe,” she says. Sometimes, it’s a 20- to 30-minute wait for a 720 with enough room to maintain proper social distance. Other times, she’ll walk to take an alternate route.
For public transportation riders, the pandemic has brought up a lot of questions about travel. How safe is it to be caught in the rush hour squeeze in and out of subways cars, trains, and buses? Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the message is still mixed.
In early June, reports from both France and Japan indicated that the virus didn’t appear to be spreading via public transportation. As Bloomberg CityLab pointed out, while that could mean that people aren’t contracting COVID-19 in these spaces, it may also be a reflection of how difficult it is to trace clusters back to public transportation. Also in early June, Los Angeles Metro announced the death of a bus driver from COVID-19 complications. A security guard, who worked as a contractor for Metro, died of the disease in April. At press time, there have been 257 confirmed cases cases of COVID-19 amongst employees, contractors and vendors.
I talked to 11 Metro riders for this story. Some have continued to ride during the pandemic. Others have stopped for a variety of reasons, including concern for their own health or that of someone in their household, as well as job changes that eliminated their commutes.
Victor P. Corona, a sociologist and professor at Emerson College and Cal State Los Angeles, stopped using Metro temporarily when his classes were moved online, both because he was no longer commuting for work and because he was concerned about the virus. For about ten weeks, he stayed in his Koreatown neighborhood. Since then, though, he’s used Metro for a few essential trips.
“Frankly, as a sociologist of urban culture, I was curious about how people were interacting in these very confined spaces,” he says. “I was expecting a lot of paranoid behavior and then some people that were maybe very defiant and not wearing masks, but I haven’t seen any of that. I’ve seen people who need to ride mass transit who need to get to their jobs or other places, sitting and looking at their phones and listening to music like they would on any other day.”
Others have noticed a few changes in the experience of riding Metro. “Any time I step on the Gold Line, even though I have my mask on, you can smell the cleaning product once you step on the train,” says John Perry of Pasadena. Those riding the B Line (aka the Red Line) have noticed that it’s been quieter. “There’s no musical entertainment on there anymore,” says Ernest Gordon of Venice in reference to the buskers who would often play inside subway cars.
Norte notes that the way bus riders are communicating with each other has changed. There are fewer conversations during the commute, she says. “We’re just communicating with our eyes right now,” Norte adds. “Right now, the eyes are saying, ‘Please don’t sit next to me.'”
For those who have stopped riding Metro, the question of when and if they will return remains and it’s often dependent on both the virus and how well safety measures are enforced. Prior to the pandemic, April Ingram, who lives in East Hollywood, used Metro at least five days a week. She has been concerned about masks, which have been mandatory since May, noting that the most frequent comments she sees on social media are about people not wearing them. She also recently saw a maskless person boarding a bus. For that reason, if Ingram is called back to her job in Echo Park soon, she’s considering walking instead. “I want them to have a strict enforcement of the masks,” she says, suggesting a “mask monitor” to keep those without them from boarding, or to hand out free ones.
“We’re just communicating with our eyes right now. Right now, the eyes are saying, ‘please don’t sit next to me.'”
Romy Meyerson, a vet tech from Reseda who commutes to West Hills, also suggests that someone monitor mask usage on the Metro. While Meyerson has been getting rides from co-workers often during the pandemic, she does still use public transportation when necessary. Like most of the current riders interviewed, she says that, overall, people have been following the mask rules. There was that one bus ride, though, where someone wasn’t wearing one.
“We are doing everything possible to maintain a healthy and safe system for both our customers and employees as we navigate this grave public health threat,” says Metro spokesman Dave Sotero. “We’ve bolstered our cleaning regimes, added capacity to many of our modified bus services, required face coverings for all riders, and are now evaluating new technologies to combat the virus.”
In recent weeks, Metro has added service for select bus lines, including the 720. Still, the bigger question is the one that also impacts every other aspect of pandemic life: How willing are we to look out for each other?
“I honestly believe that if people looked out for their fellow man—no matter who they were—I think that would make a lot of a difference,” Meyerson says.
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