New Jersey Transit is facing criticism over its handling of COVID-19 social distancing on buses, amid crowded lines that leave riders packed together, and far closer than the recommended 6-foot minimum recommended for proper social distancing.
Still, agency officials have defended their approach, pointing to a staffing shortage in the hundreds, a lack of buses to accommodate demand, and a reduced schedule given the nearly 90-percent drop in ridership.
“Social distancing is a proven, successful behavior to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and reduce exposure risk but the current level of service is not allowing for that,” Janna Chernetz, deputy director for Tri-State Transportation Campaign and nominee for the agency’s board of directors, said in a statement last week.
“Those who must continue to use NJT because they are essential employees and employees of NJ Transit or because public transit is their only form of transportation should not be forced into unsafe conditions that increase their exposure to this deadly virus,” she added.
As of Tuesday, 82 transit staffers tested positive for COVID-19 and another 571 have self-quarantined, while 159 returned to work, NJ Transit Chief Executive Officer Kevin Corbett said at a live-streamed agency board meeting on Tuesday.
That same day, the Murphy administration reported a total of 44,416 positive COVID-19 cases and 1,232 fatalities.
“While we’ve been able to strategically target select trips on some bus routes with added service. Like transit agencies across the country, we simply don’t have the manpower to add more service,” Corbett said.
Transit workers have been grappling with getting a hold of personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, as NJ Transit jockeys with other commuter agencies across the country for the limited pool of gear, Corbett added.
Simply shutting down NJ Transit – as one reporter asked about at a press conference later that day with Gov. Phil Murphy and State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli – is not an option, according to the governor.
“We have too many essential workers,” Murphy said, such as health care workers and medical staff who can help with COVID-19 testing and the local, state and regional response.
Still, the governor maintained that he would hope commuters would go to the state’s covid19.nj.gov website and report the specific bus routes where there was overcrowding.
Corbett said that riders should “use their best judgement” if they are considering whether to board a crowded bus, or wait for the next one, as well as wear masks when commuting. Police officers cannot be put on every bus to enforce social distancing, nor could that be expected from the drivers.
Station waiting rooms have been closed and ticket vending machines removed so riders have to buy their tickets via the agency’s mobile app.