Faces of the Pandemic: Keeping the valley rolling through the pandemic
RFTA bus drivers kept critical service intact despite the personal exposure
For years, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has been the valley’s annual lifeline for millions of workers, skiers and people without vehicles. And that didn’t stop with the pandemic.
The public bus system never shut down when most of the rest of the world came to a screeching halt March 14.
It was a sense of pride, duty and simple survival for many drivers, including 36-year-old Peter Magierski, an operator for one-and-a-half years.
“We keep coming. We keep coming no matter what,” Magierski said. “We chose to work in public service and transporting our community. People are going to work and they count on us.”
RFTA scaled back three times in the three weeks after the ski areas and many businesses closed March 15. It scaled up starting in May and has most routes back in service this winter. Buses can only be filled to 50% capacity, so RFTA is devoting more resources to providing a roughly equal level of service as in the past.
A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic
At one point early in the pandemic, about 35% of drivers were out ill or taking precautions, according to Ed Cortez, a driver as well as president of the local chapter of a union representing the drivers.
Magierski never sat out, but said the threat of catching the coronavirus was always on the minds of drivers.
“Absolutely, all the bus drivers in the break room were talking,” he said.
The drivers come in contact with people from all walks of life in the valley, including homeless folks who might be among the most vulnerable to the virus. Drivers could not help but be concerned when people were coughing and sneezing, Magierski said.
The drivers talked to their union representatives, who in turn talked to safety officers and RFTA executives about safety concerns and potential solutions. The planning took a couple of weeks, but then safety enhancements rapidly fell into place.
“I feel here in the valley we took quick action when it came to safety,” Magierski said.
Masks were required for drivers and passengers. Fares were initially eliminated to reduce contact and now no cash is accepted.
Buses with back doors are used for service to further limit contact. Shields have been built around the drivers’ seats. The first few rows of passenger seats are off limits. Buses are disinfected after their shifts. Capacity is limited to 50% and passengers must be socially distanced.
RFTA employees are able to borrow as many as 160 hours of sick time and pay it back, in case they fell ill or need to avoid work as a precaution.
“Me personally, I didn’t feel very threatened,” Magierski said. But some of the older drivers and those dealing with medical issues were more concerned.
“They don’t want to get COVID,” he said. “They’re scared.”
One driver became critically ill early in the pandemic and recovered in St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. The prevailing thought at the time was, “This is a lot more serious than people thought,” Magierski said.
Magierski was working the same shift as another driver who ended up testing positive for the virus. As part of RFTA’s policy, those who were potentially exposed were quarantined for 14 days. Magierski never got ill but he had to borrow for the time off. It’s tough to sit out as a precaution.
“We need our jobs,” he said.
It’s night and day between conditions now and early in the pandemic, according to Magierski. “Now we don’t have that many drivers out,” he noted.
Magierski drives primarily BRT service, the express buses that make the fewest stops while serving the Roaring Fork and lower Colorado River valleys. Passenger numbers have climbed now that the economy is cranked up for ski season.
RFTA drivers and other employees realize they play a critical role in the valley’s economy. Magierski said it would be nice to see that dedication and effort under duress rewarded.
“A lot of us feel we should be getting a bonus or hazard pay,” he said.
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As much as anyone else, Dr. Greg Balko is tired of the pandemic. The emergency medicine physician and other health care workers on the front lines in Aspen are experiencing the same pandemic fatigue that has wearied many in the face of COVID-19.