With cramped quarters and no exit doors near the rear of the buses to keep passengers distant from drivers, is it safe to ride St. Thomas Transit in these far-from-normal times?
Well, it appears this week much attention is being paid to the safety of passengers and drivers. But what about the situation over the last month when the transit system was operating a regular service while others in the province had shut down or substantially reduced hours.
And, larger operators with full-sized transit buses could take the front door out of service and have passengers enter and exit the vehicles through the rear door, well away from drivers.
With the city’s fleet of what can only be described as glorified airport parking shuttle buses, the above is not an option.
During a conversation this week with city engineer Justin Lawrence, he assured the city has taken “positive steps to minimize passenger and driver risk related to COVID-19.”
Some of those steps include reduced seating capacity; drivers have been issued with cleaning supplies for use if necessary between routes; added interior cleaning, some done during the day while cleaning also is done at the end of service and; drivers have been equipped with personal protection equipment (PPE).
The question is, were all of these steps instituted a month ago when the city and province started to introduce measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus?
In particular the issuance of PPE and the cleaning of bus shelters.
In an email from Lawrence outlining the above steps, he includes the following notation.
“Voyago is considering training and implementation of added PPE later this week.”
Voyago is the city’s contractor for operating the transit service and when contacted this past week, they deferred back to Lawrence on answers to our questions.
“So they have met all the requirements but they are looking at going above and beyond that and talking about implementing more things this week.”
In a brief conversation with Jason Keillor, general manager of transit with Voyago, he indicated “Justin is the guy.”
He added Voyago is not at liberty to discuss operations “because of the nature of the contract . . . We simply provide the staff.”
As to the daily cleaning of the buses, the answer was well you would have to speak with Justin.
“He can answer any and all questions. It’s a delicate situation.”
Lawrence did stress an increased cleaning protocol is now in place both inside the bus and the exterior, undertaken by Voyago staff.
City staff are cleaning the bus shelters.
As for PPE for the drivers, Lawrence explained “They are Voyago employees and the health and safety protocols are between Voyago and their employees. My understanding is they have given them all the PPE. So they have met all the requirements but they are looking at going above and beyond that and talking about implementing more things this week.”
This would apparently include face shields and gloves for the drivers who come in extremely close contact with riders boarding through the front doors.
The buses themselves are owned by the city so it really becomes a three-sided approach to the provision of transit services with the city contracting out to Voyago for operations and Voyago providing the drivers.
“I don’t want to say it’s just up to Voyago,” stressed Lawrence. “We know it’s our service, we own the buses.”
As to the hesitancy displayed by Keillor, the Voyago spokesperson, Lawrence suggested, “I think he is just being careful about doing interviews. He knows they (the drivers) are his employees and it’s his safety protocols.
“Everything we do is in partnership with Voyago . . . they are meeting all the health protocols from the health unit and the province on transit.”
As to when these protocols were put in place, Lawrence indicated “The list of things I told you we are doing, I would say, mostly, were implemented at the beginning (of the emergency orders) but some have been added over time.”
Lawrence reiterated the cleaning of the buses is undertaken by Voyago staff “as provided in the service contract.”
So, is there a system of logging to ensure the cleaning is being done as required?
“I’m not sure on that,” responded Lawrence. “I imagine they do. You would have to ask Jason (Keillor) about that.”
Following our conversation, Lawrence passed along an update from Keillor indicating, “Yes, our health and safety department oversees this aspect of the operation and we have daily logs being filled out and tracked on all equipment with copies in each bus detailing the requirements and completion of the process.”
Voyago may operate the service and provide drivers and the city owns the buses, but its responsibility doesn’t end there.
The health and safety of passengers – St. Thomas residents – must also be the responsibility of the city.
As an update, it is understood the city plans to cut back hours of service by one hour in the morning and again in the evening, beginning next week as per Mayor Joe Preston’s daily video message.
HURRY UP AND WAIT
Members of council seem in no hurry to fill the seat left vacant following the death last month of Linda Stevenson. Council did receive as information a report dealing with the options available to them to fill the post in the allotted 60-day time frame.
A by-election could be called – an expensive proposition – however, as noted by Mayor Joe Preston, it could not be held at this time under the COVID-19 state of emergency.
Council also has the option of appointing an eligible individual to fill the post.
In the past, a vacancy has been filled by former members of council, mayoral or councillor candidates or any qualified elector.
Coun. Steve Peters suggested leaving any decision to a subsequent meeting with the caveat, “I don’t think we should leave this open-ended.”
As an indication it could be some time before the position is filled, Preston indicated it would be wise to approach Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek to seek relief from the 60-day time limit which is a provision of the Ontario Municipal Act.
Is that an indication it might be difficult to reach a consensus on who should occupy that vacant seat in the council chamber?
IS ANYBODY MONITORING?
It was a perilous environment pre-pandemic, so it is hard to imagine how the residents of Walnut Manor are coping with the COVID-19 emergency measures.
Or have they even been instituted and are they being enforced?
Do we even know if any of the extremely vulnerable individuals warehoused there are or have been exhibiting symptoms?
We attempted to raise those concerns with Cathie Walker, director of health protection in the St. Thomas office of Southwestern Public Health.
The following email response was sent our way from Megan Cornwell, communications manager for Southwestern Public Health.
“Cathie said she hasn’t had any recent communication or contact with Walnut Manor. We do inspect this site as it is a congregate living situation with more than 6 residents so it falls within our mandate for inspection.”
We have since requested the date of the last inspection and the outcome or relevant recommendations.
Cornwell added, “In terms of COVID-19, they fall under this guidance,” a reference to the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 document for group homes and co-living settings and intended for staff and volunteers.
Wonderful recommendations if the owners of the facility, the award-winning team at SupportiveLiving.ca, have instituted any or all of them.
Things like, “Screening is required for everyone entering the residential setting, including residents who have left the premises, staff, volunteers and others.”
And, “How to access extra hand hygiene supplies (soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, paper towels) and cleaning products and perform enhanced cleaning.”
The guidance continues, “How to access and use personal protective equipment (PPE), and what types are needed.”
“These are people who can’t necessarily effectively advocate on their own behalf, so they do rely on their relatives and other concerned members of the community to take up the banner for them. I believe we owe that to them.”
And then there are things like physical distancing, encourage residents to remain in their rooms, individuals should only leave the home for urgent appointments, cleaning and disinfecting objects and high-touch surface twice a day or more and isolating residents who exhibit positive symptoms of COVID-19.
Is Southwestern Public Health monitoring any of this?
Two years ago, Walker stressed to us, “These are people who can’t necessarily effectively advocate on their own behalf, so they do rely on their relatives and other concerned members of the community to take up the banner for them. I believe we owe that to them.”
With long-term care facilities and domiciliary hospices like Walnut Manor shut down to visitors, who is taking up the banner for them?
Because now more than ever, “we owe that to them.”
THE READER’S WRITE
Our item last week on the former St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital and its possible use during the COVID-19 pandemic garnered this response from Carrie Hedderson-Smith.
“Let’s hope, no matter what, that a new buyer never tears down the old St. T psych. The buildings are landmarks and can be repurposed.
“Everyone’s solution these days is to re-build. The place is a fortress and will never fall down, they don’t use materials like that today, there are asbestos removal companies, etc. Restoration is possible- look at Europe they do it all the time.
“In North America, we are too quick to destroy and should re-think seriously about that.”
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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