This story has been updated.
As policies around the new coronavirus continue to impact ridership numbers, VIA Metropolitan Transit will run Saturday bus routes on weekdays beginning next Monday, the transit agency said in a news release.
“While VIA ridership has declined during the past several weeks, we remain committed to providing essential service for riders who rely on public transportation to get to work, obtain food and supplies, or help care for others,” VIA said in a statement Monday. “We will continue to expand our cleaning program, using EPA-approved, hospital-grade disinfectant, for vehicles and facilities, while taking additional steps to help protect employees and customers.”
The reduction in service comes less than two weeks after VIA CEO and president Jeff Arndt said ridership in March was steadily declining amid the health crisis. Despite this, San Antonio’s public transit provider had been committed to keeping buses running at full capacity. However, last week, ridership dropped another 30 to 45 percent, according to Rachel Benavidez, VIA’s director of communications.
“As more people stay home under shelter-in-place order, and social distancing restrictions are enforced, we will implement these temporary service adjustments that reflect current ridership demand for bus service while still providing essential travel options,” Benavidez said.
She added that the agency is not looking at shutting the whole system down at this point.
“It’s not something we’re discussing,” Benavidez said. “I think we have to look at just the next necessary step. We understand that eventually, additional steps will be needed.”
VIA also said it would extend fare-free rides for all its services through April 30. VIA originally planned to waive fees until April 1.
The decision to make public transit free during the coronavirus pandemic came from a desire to alleviate any financial burden on those who rely on public transit to get to necessities such as work, doctor’s appointments or food distribution centers. Just as important, VIA officials said, was the need for social distancing. Making rides free allows for less interaction between bus drivers and riders, and reduces crowding as people board the bus.
Juan Amaya serves as president of the Amalgamated Transit Union 694, which represents hourly employees at VIA. He said he was still concerned about the safety of drivers on more popular bus routes because of increased ridership since those routes became free.
“My concern is the social distancing,” Amaya said. “I know the free fare was done … to support people. I know a lot of people lost their jobs. And [free bus rides are] to have less interaction between the operator and the rider; they don’t want them to touch the farebox. That was the reason. But I still have little concerns.”
Although a few bus operators had been tested for COVID-19, none have tested positive for the disease, he said. He is also happy that bus operators have been guaranteed their regular 80-hour pay periods for now
“I’m trying to keep everybody’s jobs,” he said. “I don’t want nobody being laid off or furloughed. I think we as a union have so far accomplished that.”
VIA operators are guaranteed regular pay for the month of April, as funded by the coronavirus relief bill recently signed by President Donald Trump.
“However, many are being assigned to other work including helping with enhanced vehicle cleaning in the field and assisting with other special transportation needs,” Benavidez said.
One VIA employee recently tested positive for COVID-19, though the individual worked at the security office at VIA’s Joint Law Enforcement Center building on North Medina Street, which requires a badge to enter. That person self-quarantined as soon as they started feeling sick, according to VIA, and their work area was cleaned and disinfected.
“They have had minimal to no contact with the public and limited interaction with other employees in their role,” VIA said in a statement Monday. “They last reported to work on Monday, March 23. The individual reported experiencing symptoms on Tuesday, March 24, and did not report to work, per VIA’s contagious virus protocol for employees, which proved successful in limiting exposure to others when followed.”
VIA has also removed some seats from its buses and vans behind drivers in order to promote social distancing, the agency said.