VTA adopts enhanced cleaning practices in response to coronavirus concerns
A VTA service worker cleans a light rail car with disenfectant in Downtown Mountain View during the morning commute Wednesday March 11, 2020. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

The Valley Transportation Authority is taking new steps to disinfect buses, light rail cars and stations to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Santa Clara County.

The agency’s response to concerns about surface transmission of coronavirus drew praise from regular riders and advocates alike.

“They are doing everything they can,” said transit activist Monica Mallon. “It is good that they are doing more surface cleaning and providing supplies and protective equipment to workers.”

Although those measures are precautionary, VTA officials emphasized the importance of doing everything possible to slow the spread of the virus, including raising public awareness about how riders can protect themselves and the community.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest that we do all we can with the resources we have to educate people and whatever else we can do to prevent the spread of COVID 19,” VTA spokesman Ken Blackstone said.

County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody on Monday announced that the number of confirmed cases of the disease had jumped from 11 the previous week to 48 by Wednesday afternoon. Cody announced a three-week ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people including sporting events, concerts and conferences — excluding airports, shopping centers, office buildings and other similar places where people gather and circulate.

Also Monday, a woman in her 60s died from the disease at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View.

Cody said the woman had underlying health problems and was the first case identified by county health workers as being the result of “community transmission,” not connected to travel to a region with an outbreak or direct contact with a sick person. Of the 43 confirmed cases, nearly half seem to be unrelated to travel or direct exposure.

“The number and type of cases to date indicate that the risk of exposure to this virus in our community is increasing,” Cody said at a news conference Monday.

The county’s Board of Supervisors received an extensive briefing from its agencies and partners including the VTA during a meeting Tuesday morning. The authority’s Chief of System Safety and Security Angelique Gaeta reassured the board that the VTA is staying informed about the spread of the disease by remaining in near constant contact with local and federal health officials — and following their guidance.

Gaeta added that since the VTA’s most recent board meeting March 5, “we have been authorizing the use of overtime to support enhanced cleaning in all of the service areas including the buses, our light rails, on platforms, our ticket vending machines — which will be done on a daily basis.”

The agency’s safety chief also said the VTA had been working with the Federal Transit Administration to “redirect some funds to support enhanced cleaning and any personal protective equipment our employees need.”

During Wednesday’s morning commute, a two-man cleaning crew was working to disinfect light rail cars on the Orange Line in downtown Mountain View before they rolled out of the station.

It was a welcome sight for Anjali Devudu, who begins her nearly two-hour commute at San Francisco’s SoMa Caltrain station and transfers to the VTA light rail station on her way to work in Santa Clara every day.

Devudu, a 37-year-old lawyer, said Wednesday was the first time she had noticed workers cleaning the light rail cars as they waited in the station. She noted that the cars are “usually very clean,” but she appreciates the “extra precautions,” in light of coronavirus concerns.

Anecdotally, Devudu said she had seen a decrease in ridership during the last leg of her commute in the past two weeks.

“I’ve been able to get a seat every day,” she said gesturing to a mostly empty car behind her at 9 a.m. Wednesday. “That’s not usually the case.”

Blackstone told San José Spotlight on Wednesday that weekday ridership is down about 5 percent since mid-February. It’s unclear if any of the decline in ridership is due to the virus.

The VTA has been providing bus drivers and light rail operators with disinfectant wipes and gloves as concerns over coronavirus continue to mount. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

While others may be skipping their usual commutes, either because their jobs allow them to work remotely or because they are taking private transportation, Devudu says she has no plans to alter her transit routine.

“I love the VTA,” she said. “I think it’s great.”

Linda MacLeod, a San Jose native and occasional VTA bus rider, said she hasn’t noticed fewer people using transit.

But she has seen some riders taking their own extra precautions by wearing respiratory masks on buses and trains. MacLeod said she’s taking her own precautions as well — using hand sanitizer after riding the bus — but she’s legally blind and relies on public transit to get around, so she won’t be changing her routine, either.

“I am not reducing my ridership and I do not plan on stopping transit use,” MacLeod said.

The former attorney used to be a daily commuter until the VTA changed its service plan at the end of 2019, eliminating her local bus route.

“I’m still using the bus even though my round trip to and from downtown is generally 45 minutes to an hour longer,” MacLeod said. “Really, what are my options?”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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