Buses in photos are unrelated to subjects in this story in order to shield their identities.
PHOTOS BY LUIS EDGARDO COTTO | TRANSLATION BY ADRIENNE EVANS
“We should only be able to have seven passengers on the bus so they can keep that amount of distance between them. But that is not happening.”
The day before he returned to his job as a bus driver in Boston, Mickey spent all night terrified and even angry. For two weeks, he had been at home on quarantine because one of his coworkers tested positive for COVID-19.
More than anything else, the idea of returning to his MBTA job caused Mickey concern, specifically about potentially infecting his two children and his wife, who have been in quarantine since the pandemic hit.
“We bus drivers don’t have much protection,” Mickey said in a phone interview. “We are exposed to the virus, risking our lives and those of our families.”
Mickey is a made-up name that we are using here to protect his identity, since the MBTA restricts its workers from speaking to the press without authorization. For the same reason, other identifying information like his route were left out of this article.
“We are essential employees,” he said. “But here, you are only good while you can work.” Mickey is a longtime driver with only a few years left until retirement. He’s been through a lot with the transit authority, but at this point, he said, “it is not so clear to me that I was really providing an essential service.”
“In other emergency situations, such as during or after a snowstorm, we take people who need a ride from point A to point B,” Mickey said. “But now, we are not always transporting essential workers. Maybe first thing in the morning, yes. But then, we are picking up people who are simply reckless or who have nowhere to go. And for this, I am risking my life and those of my family?”
At the time of my first interview with Mickey, an MBTA inspector had already died from coronavirus, and about 45 drivers and other city bus workers had tested positive for COVID-19.
After 14 days of quarantine, Mickey tested negative for the coronavirus, and was cleared to return to work. “I’m going to expose my family again,” he told me.
Before Mickey went into quarantine, the MBTA had already set certain protective measures; most notably, riders do not have to pay a fare, while everybody has to board through the back door.
The Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589, which represents drivers, lobbied for rope barriers to be installed in the bus aisle near the front, to prevent passengers from approaching drivers. The union also provided protective face masks for operators before the MBTA secured its own supply. All these things considered, another one of Mickey’s worries was related to the advisable physical separation between people.
“I am very concerned when they say that the distance between people should be six feet,” he said. “In that case, we should only be able to have seven passengers on the bus so they can keep that amount of distance between them. But that is not happening. Twenty or more people are entering, and as the driver, I do not have the right to prevent more than seven from entering. If 20 or 30 people enter on my route, I have to take them. I do not understand this part. I don’t know how we are going to stop the virus like this.”
Mickey continued, “I do not consider myself a hero. I do not need recognition or praise. But we have more COVID-19 patients near us than others in the public sector do and we are more exposed and nobody is recognizing this.”
I interviewed Mickey again after he completed his first day of work after quarantine. He seemed like a different person than the one who spoke with me the day before. Suddenly, he sounded genuinely glad to be back, telling me he loves being a bus driver. “I feel like the king of the road,” he said.
Until the current crisis, Mickey said that he never had major job-related concerns as a bus driver. That changed dramatically in the weeks leading up to and during his quarantine, but after returning to work, Mickey said that things felt “safer.” When he arrived at the depot, a coworker took his temperature and gave him gloves and masks. He also said “there are less people” riding.
“I am a guy who has no problems with people, with passengers,” Mickey said, smiling. “For me, being a driver has been a great experience all these years. I have made many friends. It is also a point of pride for us bus drivers, because buses are the soul of public transportation. When the tracks or trains are damaged, we come to the rescue. Buses solve everything. We are the ones who solve the problems.”