Amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the Wood River Valley, Mountain Rides Transportation Authority board members took an hour Wednesday to solidify safety protocols and communication strategies.
Effective last week, Mountain Rides is limiting ridership to 10 passengers on each bus, despite its exemption from Hailey, Ketchum and Blaine County’s newly-passed group-size restrictions. (The organization is considered a governmental or institutional agency, Hailey City Administrator Heather Dawson confirmed on Wednesday.)
Passengers will also be restricted from sitting next to one another unless they belong to the same family unit or “pod.”
“With a [COVID-19] surge upon us again, we’ve taken a new look at our protocols for limiting the spread of the virus using the [county and city] health orders as a backdrop,” Mountain Rides Executive Director Wally Morgus said.
The agency will continue the protocol it put in place at the start of the pandemic—rigorous bus cleanings throughout the day, providing masks for those who don’t have one and using plastic shields to seal off drivers’ compartments.
To accommodate customers that may be turned away due to Mountain Rides’ capacity restrictions, specifically students, shadow buses will be deployed on the Valley Route during rush hour and popular early-morning commuting times, Finance and Administration Director Tucker Van Law said.
One messaging strategy brought up during Wednesday’s meeting was encouraging anyone with a reliable transportation method not to take the bus. Van Law said despite being contrary to Mountain Rides’ mission, that message could help reduce bus loads and offset any frustration from riders having to wait for a shadow bus.
Board Member Peter Hendricks, who is also mayor of Sun Valley, said that was the wrong message to be sending out.
“I’m not in favor of that at all,” he said. “To say ‘find another way to travel’ is like saying we’re giving up. It’s a bad message.”
Board Member Juan Martinez, a Hailey city councilman, agreed.
“I don’t even know that we are allowed as a public transportation organization to say you’re not allowed to take the bus,” he said.
Martinez also expressed opposition to the 10-person cap on buses, worrying that families would be split apart on their daily commutes.
“Just like the grocery store is an essential service, so is public transportation. I see the [group size restrictions] going overboard,” he said. “We’re supposed to be picking people up.”
Martinez added that Mountain Rides’ messaging this fall and winter needed to be “more positive.”
“In Hailey, I think we’ve kind of failed with our new order in not being positive enough to the business community,” he said. “We should have been saying, ‘Guys, we did a good job to get through this summer. Now let’s come together to do an even better job.’”
Transit Operations Director Ben Varner responded that it would be very unlikely for a family to be split apart.
“That’s a really limited circumstance,” Varner said. “If a driver pulls up to a stop and two extra people from a family want to get on, it would be up to the driver’s discretion at that point, but it should be OK for a family unit to get on and sit together.”
Morgus said one benefit of reduced capacity could be that riders end up feeling safer. He added that he would support a message from Mountain Rides to the public about decreasing bus ridership, but stressed that communication would be “very important.”
“Words certainly matter here, but I think we need to acknowledge we’re in extraordinary times right now, and extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.”
Mountain Rides will also be ramping up internal contact-tracing measures of its staff and drivers, requiring employees to do hourly audits and complete health checklists, Varner said.
“We’re making our drivers the captain of the ship, and they’re taking this very, very seriously,” he said.
In other news, Mountain Rides passed a resolution on Wednesday to make all routes fare-free, including the Galena route this ski season. Community Development Director Kim MacPherson said Galena fare had previously been $5 one-way and $8 round trip.