Hamilton

'Bored' riders crowd HSR buses union says, mayor pleads: stop 'joyriding'

As Hamilton wrestles with the outbreak of COVID-19, officials are pleading with members of the public not to treat Hamilton's public transit system like it's business as usual. And, above all, don't board a bus if they have symptoms of the new coronavirus.

'We want to be there for the ones who really, really need us'

Some HSR buses are crowded despite the COVID-19 outbreak says ATU Local 107 president Eric Tuck. (Adam Carter/CBC)

The HSR may be free, but it's meant for essential travel only — not tours of the city or to act as a personal party bus.

As Hamilton wrestles with the outbreak of COVID-19, officials are pleading with members of the public not to treat Hamilton's public transit system like it's business as usual.

And, above all, don't board a bus if you have symptoms of the new coronavirus.

That's a situation Eric Tuck, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 107, said one of his drivers was recently confronted with after a woman boarded a bus and struck up a casual conversation with the driver.

"She said 'I've been told I have to go down for testing,'" Tuck said.

The driver stopped the bus and told the woman to get off, but she refused until the driver got on the radio.

"It almost became a conflict," said the union president. "You think it'd be a no-brainer."

That woman isn't the only one who hasn't gotten the message.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger has repeatedly spoken out about people "joyriding" on buses or "touring to one end of line and then going back again."

On Tuesday the mayor mentioned transit again, repeating his message not to use the bus just because you're bored and calling for anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 to find another way to an assessment centre.

"Please don't use the bus," said Eisenberger. "You will potentially be contaminating and spreading that virus to many, many other people.

With people being urged to stay home and practice social distancing, the idea of boarding a bus for a scenic tour of the city might seem farfetched, but Eric Tuck, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 107, said it's a worrying reality.

"We've definitely got a capacity issue of people taking advantage of the free rides," he explained, saying major routes along main streets such as King and Barton have been crammed.

"A lot of the malls, a lot of the stores are closed. People who would normally hang out at the malls and stuff are getting on buses and just going for a ride."

'We're not allowing people to just ride around'

And they're not the only ones. Seniors, who health officials say are among the most at risk if infected by COVID-19, are also crowding onto buses to ride downtown or do some shopping.

"They're the most vulnerable," said Tuck. "The problem is we're getting capacity on a 40 passenger bus … where you're getting actually 30 people. It's kind of hard to socially distance when you have that many people riding on a bus."

An 80-year-old woman was the first person in Hamilton whose death was related to COVID-19, said public health officials Tuesday.

While it's not clear how the woman came into contact with COVID-19 — she was a resident of a Stoney Creek nursing home — something public health officials used to underline the fact the older population is "high-risk."

Tuck was quick to point out buses are still on the road to make sure those who don't drive can still get supplies or visit food banks. But he said wherever possible people should try to hitch a ride with friends or family members.

"Really, the buses right now are out there for essential service workers; people working in nursing homes, hospitals, home support workers."

Homeless people looking for a place to sit down are also among those finding their way onto buses. Advocates say they have been left "out in the cold" by COVID-19 measures helping other Hamiltonians.

"To deal with the boredom they're just coming out and going for rides," said Tuck. But, "during COVID we're not allowing people to just ride around."

Some packing a beer or two along for the ride

Others are treating the bus as if there isn't a pandemic, including those who are using it as a free ride to and from a night of drinking with friends — another practice officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are asking people to stop.

While the HSR is happy those people aren't getting behind the wheel, Tuck said it's a problem.

"They bring a beer or two. Obviously we're not there for that purpose," he said.

"We have a lot of nurses and home support workers that are working late at night taking the bus home. When you have somebody getting on that's intoxicated or drinking on the bus that becomes a real issue."

The city has taken steps to protect HSR workers. Passengers, except those with mobility issues, have to enter and exit from the back door, buses are running on a limited schedule and riders have even been asked not to engage in their usual friendly conversation with drivers.

Driving a bus isn't a job you can do from home, and Tuck said transit workers are proud to offer a "critical service." They just ask that residents also do their part.

"My members are exposed to some extent … but when you have people overcrowding the buses that does put us at greater risk … in an enclosed environment," he said.

"We want to be there for the ones who really, really need us at this time."

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