Extra cleaning efforts to fight coronavirus ignored by Winnipeg Transit

On an average weekday, Winnipeg Transit carries over 168,400 passengers, holding railings and standing shoulder-to-shoulder during peak times. Yet despite coronavirus concerns, the city says no extra cleaning and disinfecting measures are currently being undertaken on the fleet.

Fleet of 640 buses are given internal pressure hose wash once every 3-4 months

Winnipeg Transit's buses get an internal wash once every three to four months. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

On an average weekday, Winnipeg Transit carries over 168,400 passengers, holding railings and standing shoulder-to-shoulder during peak times.

Yet despite coronavirus concerns, the city says no extra cleaning and disinfecting measures are currently being undertaken on the fleet.

In fact, one of the proposed cuts to the 2020 civic budget calls for a reduction in cleaning staff, city council's public works committee was told Thursday evening.

Transit plans to cut three positions in order to trim $708,000 from its cleaning budget, the committee heard.

CBC News asked the city to comment on the proposed cuts prior to the committee meeting. Most of the onus for cleaning was placed on passengers and the public.

The schedules for internal washes and what's called a 'mini-wipe' of Winnipeg Transit buses are expected to grow longer if the proposed city budget passes. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"The public and our employees are encouraged to exercise their own precautions to protect against the spread of illness consistent with the advice provided by officials in Manitoba Health," Winnipeg Transit said in a statement.

The city notes there are protocols in place that follow Manitoba Health's standards of health and sanitation.

"If they were to indicate that changes were required in the event of a public health concern, the city would immediately update its protocols as required," the statement said.

That message was echoed by Jason Shaw, manager of Winnipeg's emergency operations centre, and Mayor Brian Bowman at a Thursday news conference, shortly after the province said it had identified its first presumptive case of the coronavirus in Manitoba.

The province said later in the day two more presumptive cases have been identified.

Buttons, railings, handles and straps on buses are all touched thousands of times a day. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Both Shaw and Bowman repeatedly advised people to wash their hands, avoid touching their faces and to stay home if they're feeling sick.

"If everyone in Winnipeg and Manitoba just followed the basic information … we're going to do a lot of be able to slow the curve and make sure the COVID-19 impacts are less here," Shaw said.

"We need all Winnipeggers to do their part," said Bowman.

In the meantime, things remain status quo when it comes to cleaning the city's buses.

A worker under contract with the Toronto Transit Commission demonstrates how to disinfect a public transit bus. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

By comparison, the Toronto Transit Commission has escalated its cleaning procedures for the city's streetcar and subway system, as has Metrolinx for the regional GO trains. 

Both transit organizations are wiping down high-contact areas — buttons, railings, handles and straps — with heavy-duty products, such as hospital-grade disinfectant.

And it is now happening on a daily basis, where it was once done weekly.

The TTC has also hired a contractor to spray the inside of its buses when they go out of service each night.

On Thursday, the Winnipeg local for the Amalgamated Transit Union posted a message from the ATU's international arm, calling for more rigorous cleaning for vehicles and facilities in the United States and Canada.

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"There is growing industry consensus that buses, trains, cars, vans, garages, and transit stations should be disinfected as frequently as possible, but not less frequently than daily," the message states.

It also calls for the use of electrostatic sprayers, a device "which positively charges the disinfectant mist so that it better coats surfaces."

A spokesperson for the Winnipeg ATU said sharing the message means "that would be our official stance."

James Van Gerwen, vice-president of the local, released a more tempered statement.

"We are of course concerned about the potential risk of the coronavirus for our riders and members and are vigilantly following updates as they come from the City of Winnipeg and Manitoba Health," he said.

Fleeting washes

Winnipeg Transit has a fleet of 640 buses, which are given an internal soap-and-water wash with a pressure hose once every three months, said a source with knowledge of Transit, who CBC has agreed not to name.

Transit plans to save $208,000 by reducing that frequency, the public works committee was told.

There is also a process called a mini-wipe, which a crew of three people does each night. It involves disinfectant wipe downs but only of the driver's area. About 45 buses per night are able to be treated, the source told CBC.

One cleaner will be responsible for maintaining 120 shelters if proposed budget cuts are approved by the City of Winnipeg. (Submitted by Amalgamated Transit Union)

Transit also plans to save $500,000 by reducing the frequency of cleaning bus shelters. That means one cleaner will be responsible for maintaining 120 shelters, instead of 90, the committee heard on Thursday.

Asked if he thinks it's important to step up its efforts to clean buses and other spaces under the city's control, Shaw said he's not the expert on that, but that Winnipeg Transit officials are in contact with other jurisdictions.

"I can tell you that is just one of the things we're talking about, about what can we do to make sure that we're in line with what Manitoba Health is saying around social distancing and making sure we're taking care of our people," he said.

Transit hopes to save $500,000 by reducing the frequency of cleaning bus shelters. (Submitted by the Amalgamated Transit Union)

Manitoba's chief provincial health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, was also pointedly asked Thursday about Winnipeg Transit's cleaning policies but was noncommittal about mandating better practices.

"Frequently disinfecting commonly used surfaces can be beneficial against this virus," he said. "We will be reaching out more to our many partners, including public transportation, to provide advice for measures like this.

"This is about the roles everyone can play in reducing the transmission of the virus."

                          ABOUT THE AUTHOR

                          Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

                          With files from Bartley Kives and Sean Kavanagh