NJ Transit bus riders continue to share concerns about how the agency is complying with social distancing rules put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has now killed more than 7,200 in the state.
Winston George, who works for UPS, is among those who have gone public with their complaint. Videos he took aboard the NJ Transit bus he takes from Irvington to his job show multiple passengers lined up to board at a curbside bus stop, and then riders bunched together, standing in the center aisle.
George said passengers often pile in past the point of safe social distancing on his line, NJ Transit’s 25 bus.
“Look at this. Look. At. This. Still letting passengers on the bus,” he says as the video rolls.
His frustrated fellow riders join him in letting the driver know of their displeasure. “You’re at your capacity, that’s it!” one can be heard to say on the video, which George shared with NJTV News.
“People been fussing at the bus driver, fussing with each other,” he said during a remote interview. “I myself, personally, I do not have the option of staying inside because I’m an essential worker.”
The complaints come as the state’s mass transit agency wrestles with the challenges of the pandemic, most notably the critical role it plays in getting some essential workers to their jobs, amid steep service cuts and a sharp drop in overall ridership. Fare revenues have also plunged.
Under an executive order issued by Gov. Phil Murphy on April 11, ridership on all NJ Transit buses and trains was to be capped at 50% of normal capacity, and all riders were told to wear face coverings.
NJ Transit spokesperson Nancy Snyder said the agency is working to address issues as they arise.
“We modify service daily to manage heavier ridership and we are looking into the matter you brought up,” she said. “Bus operators immediately notify our control center of heavier ridership, and we work to enhance service on these trips.”
“Additionally we are reinforcing with our bus operators the need to maintain the 50% capacity limit,” Snyder added.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg suggested that some bus drivers might need training about the social distancing rules.
“They can’t let this happen,” said the Bergen County Democrat who’s been a frequent critic of the state’s mass transit agency. “It’s got to stop. It’s dangerous. It’s unfair to the people who must ride this transportation to get to their jobs, and it puts everybody else in jeopardy.”
In fact, COVID-19 has killed two bus drivers. And of almost 300 agency employees who tested positive, about two-thirds are frontline workers. Murphy announced Thursday that he has agreed with union leaders to set up COVID-19 testing for all NJ Transit workers at the American Dream site in the Meadowlands. The agency is also working on establishing similar testing centers at other locations in central and southern parts of the state, Murphy added.
During his daily briefing on the COVID-19 crisis, Murphy talked about how important it was to the eventual reopening of the state economy for riders to feel safe about using NJ Transit.
“Ensuring the health and safety of the men and women on NJ Transit also means enhancing public confidence in our mass transit system,” he said. “And we know that our overall restart and recovery lies on ensuring that residents have greater confidence in their ability to get to work or the store as our economy begins to reopen in the weeks ahead.”
NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett, who himself tested positive for COVID-19, has said he can’t put transit police aboard buses, or expect drivers to enforce social distancing policies.
Transit advocates say that riders need to be proactive about their own safety.
“Social distancing is 100% responsibility of everybody,” said Janna Chernetz of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, who’s also a nominee to the NJ Transit Board of Directors. “So, number one, if you do not feel safe, do not put yourself in that situation. Perhaps wait for the next bus, or get off that bus. Really, reporting it to NJ Transit so they’re aware it’s happening is the strongest thing a customer can do.”
George said he’s complained to NJ Transit.
“Something has to be done,” he said. “Because, now, not only my health and life is at risk, but also my family that I come home to and my coworkers.”
George also said that he’s seen some drivers bypass stops if the bus is already at capacity, even if it means leaving passengers waiting on the sidewalk.
“The bus driver can’t police the situation, I agree,” he said. “But there are other creative measures that can be done.”