Manitoba

Winnipeg bus riders urged to wear face masks as service returns to full capacity

People who use public transit in Winnipeg are being asked to wear face masks while on board. The city has also called back the rest of its drivers temporarily laid off during the pandemic as it prepares to return to full service next month.

Regular summer bus schedule to resume Aug. 2, full weekday service Aug. 4

A message on a Winnipeg Transit bus reminds the public to practise social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Riders are now also being asked to wear face masks while on board. (Dana Hatherly/CBC)

People taking the bus or using Transit Plus in Winnipeg are now being asked to wear a non-medical face mask while on board.

The recommendation came as city officials announced a planned return to full bus service next month and asked drivers temporarily laid off during the pandemic to come back to work.

In May, the province reduced service to an "enhanced Saturday schedule" and temporarily laid off 253 full- and part-time drivers, after ridership plunged during the start of the pandemic.

Around 120 drivers who were still laid off, and 41 who were in training, are being called back to work following a steady increase in public transit use over the past two weeks, said Jay Shaw, assistant chief of emergency management for the City of Winnipeg.

"With those numbers continuing on an upward trend, the decision was made to restore summer transit service beginning in August," Shaw said at a news conference with Mayor Brian Bowman on Friday morning.

Bowman said he was glad to be able to bring the rest of the city's transit drivers back to work.

"They do incredibly important work to keep our city moving," he said. "This has been a time unlike any other for our citizens, and I think what we can all recognize is we are pulling together."

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman says he was glad to be able to bring the rest of the city's transit drivers back to work. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

There are 89 other city staff who are still laid off, including employees who work in recreation services and community programs, Bowman said.

Drivers will be trained in new COVID-19-related procedures, Shaw said. The city has also ended its recommendation that people only take the bus for essential trips.

Winnipeg Transit will return to its regular summer bus schedule starting Aug. 2, with full weekday service set to begin again starting Aug. 4, Shaw said.

Masks recommended, not mandatory

Drivers won't be enforcing the recommendation to wear masks, which Shaw said came from consultations with provincial public health officials.

"Transit has been a safe service the whole time, and we want to maintain that as we move into this new normal," Shaw said.

That recommendation could become mandatory if the province changes its stance on face masks, he said.

"We don't have a crystal ball," Shaw said. "As we move forward, there could be more rules around masks. Right now, they're not mandatory... [but] we're going to be assessing all the time."

Both Shaw and the mayor urged people not to judge riders who aren't wearing masks.

"We're not asking people to publicly shame or call people out," Bowman said. "Let's be respectful. It's a recommendation. It's not an order or a mandated item coming from Manitoba Health."

Bowman said as far as he's aware, Winnipeg is the last major Canadian city to give a recommendation on the use of face masks on public transit.

Signs will start appearing on buses in the coming weeks to remind people about the recommendation to wear masks while on board, Shaw said.

Mayor Brian Bowman and Jay Shaw, assistant chief of emergency management for the City of Winnipeg, made the announcement at a news conference on Friday morning. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Passengers are also encouraged to practise physical distancing when possible, use the rear door to exit when they're able to and avoid using public transportation if they are sick, he said.

Transit's passenger levels dropped to their lowest point in April, when they were down by about 70 per cent from the same time period last year, Shaw said. 

In May and June, that drop fluctuated between 66 and 68 per cent. Over the last two weeks, transit has been getting closer to half its usual ridership, with the drop in usage sitting between 52 and 56 per cent, he said.

Right now, there is an average of around 11 or 12 people on a bus at any given time, Shaw said, though that number is higher during rush hour.

While city officials expect ridership to increase even more, Shaw said he hopes the extra buses on the roads will help spread out where those riders are.

"With the extra capacity on the buses, we're hoping to maintain that safe level that we see right now," he said.

More bus schedule information will be available on Winnipeg Transit's website starting July 22, the city said in a news release.

People taking the bus or using Transit Plus in Winnipeg are now being asked to wear a non-medical face mask while on board. 2:13

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