In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, one important group of Oahu workers largely avoided infection: TheBus and Handi-Van drivers.

However, ever since Hawaii’s cases started surging in late June there’s been a steady trickle of positive tests for those transit drivers. The trend continued this week when city officials on Monday reported the 20th and 21st cases.

Local transit officials say the steps they’ve taken to keep the island’s vital public transportation services safe exceed those on the mainland, including a more stringent mask-wearing requirement for passengers.

None of TheBus or Handi-Van drivers who’ve tested positive are believed to have passed the virus on to passengers, they say, and most of the drivers’ positive test results were attributed to causes outside of work. That includes contact with COVID-19-positive family members, community spread and travel abroad.

TheBus Buses lined up at Ala Moana with signs ‘Wash your hands’ due to Coronavirus concerns.
Most, but not all, of Honolulu’s 21 transit drivers’ positive COVID-19 results were attributed to factors outside of work. But in three cases, drivers filed workers’ compensation claims. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

But in at least three of the drivers’ cases there was no clear exposure to the virus outside of their work, according to Oahu Transit Services, which operates TheBus and Handi-Van for the city.

The three drivers in those cases have filed workers’ compensation claims with the company, according to OTS President and General Manager Roger Morton.

Furthermore, in at least eight of the cases city officials released information about the drivers’ most recent routes, out of an abundance of caution so that passengers could check whether they may have been exposed. One driver who tested positive for COVID-19 in June continued on the job for five days while feeling sick.

The city and OTS shared these additional details:

  • Two drivers of TheBus reported feeling symptoms on their last day of work after they’d completed their shift. A third driver called in sick the day after completing their last shift.
  • At least three of the drivers tested positive after a family member had tested positive.
  • Five of the drivers had been on leave before they tested positive, leading transit officials to believe there was no exposure to passengers. The reasons for those leaves varied. In more than one case it was because a family member had tested positive for COVID-19.
  • Some 54 OTS employees are currently on leave for COVID-19-related reasons, including two staffers who are awaiting test results. Some employees have to watch children while schools remain closed. Others have family members who are especially vulnerable to the disease.

Meanwhile, OTS continues to require daily temperature checks for its employees. It reports having spent more than $500,000 in overtime for maintenance crews to do extra, daily cleanings of the city’s buses. It aims to replace all the shower curtains that have helped separate drivers from passengers with plexiglass barriers by the end of January.

The company further requires that any passengers looking to ride without wearing a mask apply for a permit, which Morton said is more than what the transit services on the mainland require. So far some 75 passengers have inquired about that permit and six have been issued, according to OTS.

“We have taken a concerted effort to do everything we can to keep our employees and the public safe,” Morton said Tuesday.

For the drivers whose COVID-19 tests came back positive, “I feel a little relieved that we can attribute most of it to the community,” he said, instead of to their jobs helping Honolulu residents make essential trips.

Ridership Still Down More Than Half

Meanwhile, Honolulu’s daily transit trips continue to lag amid the pandemic.

Prior to March, the city typically saw some 190,000 trips per day aboard TheBus.

When the pandemic hit, that plummeted to about 65,000 trips.

Nowadays, TheBus is hovering at about 82,000 trips per day, OTS reported Tuesday.

The Handi-Van, which often shuttles seniors and other Honolulu residents vulnerable to COVID-19 around town, has seen daily trips cut in half, from some 4,200 trips to 2,000.

Overall, transit fares are down about $25 million this year, Morton said Tuesday. The city relies on those fares to fund at least a quarter of its bus and Handi-Van services.

The Handi-Van.
City officials report that three Handi-Van drivers have tested positive since the COVID-19 pandemic started. They aren’t aware of any passengers contracting the virus from those drivers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Despite losing more than half of its daily ridership, OTS is still running the overall bus fleet at 90% capacity to give passengers space to physically distance, Morton said. On the busiest routes, which run through neighborhoods such as Kalihi, downtown, Moiliili, Kaimuki and Salt Lake, among others, they’ve boosted service by a combined $7 million to give people space.

Some $91 million in federal coronavirus relief money helped keep TheBus and Handi-Van service running amid the slump.

Morton said that he hoped ridership might start to rebound in the summer, which is when the city’s new fiscal year starts, and that might help keep the vital transit services afloat.

“Our hope is that the virus will ultimately be combated, whether that’s through vaccine or good government action, and we want to do everything we can (to ensure) that our services are safe. That’s hard to do,” Morton said.

“I certainly hope that our transit ridership will begin to go back toward some normalcy when that happens. But I’m no more of a soothsayer than anybody else,” he added.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author