On April 20, Rock Region Metro began requiring that all public transit riders wear a mask or some other covering over their mouth and nose. Among 5,000 daily “passenger trips,” Rock Region refused service to 36 riders on Monday and 17 riders on Tuesday who weren’t wearing a face covering and declined a free mask from a bus driver, Charles Frazier, executive director of the transit agency, told the Little Rock Board of Directors Tuesday.
The agency has enough masks to supply to passengers who don’t have them to last about two weeks, Frazier said. If passengers don’t have a mask, they can tie a t-shirt or a bandana around their face as long as it covers their mouth and nose.
Rock Region Metro limited ridership on its buses to 10 passengers beginning March 23. On April 2, it began requiring passengers to board buses from the back to further encourage social distancing. Because the fare box is at the front, Rock Region temporarily stopped collecting fares.
Frazier appeared before the board to address complaints from citizens who have had long wait times because of the passenger limit. He said Rock Region had added extra vehicles on all of the busy routes that trail 3-5 minutes behind the normally scheduled bus. “If we still have people, we’re using spare transit vehicles and dispatching those,” Frazier said.
The bus agency will recoup lost revenue from not collecting fares through the federal CARES Act, Frazier said.
Rock Region implemented the 10 rider limit in response to CDC guidelines. In developing the the mask requirement policy, Frazier said that the agency had been in touch with other transit agencies around the country as well as the American Public Transportation Association. He said input from passengers and drivers had figured into the decision as well.
“We got complaints not only from drivers, but from other passengers that people would get on the bus and openly sneeze,” Frazier said.
Drivers are especially attuned to the risk as 100 transit drivers in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, Frazier said.
Ward 2 Director Ken Richardson said the mask requirement wasn’t welcomed among many in his ward. “A lot of them see this as another unfair burden that’s being put on people that are already facing a whole host of burdens on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
He also pressed the city to help spread the word about the new requirement.
Ward 3 Director Kathy Webb asked Mayor Frank Scott Jr. for an update on the city’s plan to provide housing for homeless, elderly or other fragile populations who might need somewhere to quarantine. The city has discussed using unused hotel rooms to provide such shelter.
Scott said the Arkansas Department of Human Services told the city that a Medicaid waiver, where the city would be required to pay 25 percent of the cost and Medicaid dollars would cover the other 75 percent, wasn’t possible. The city is now seeking funding from the federal Housing and Urban Development’s Emergency Solutions Grants Program and has tapped Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton and U.S. Rep. French Hill to assist in speeding up the process.
The board also approved a recommendation from the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission that rent from Marriott for the city-owned Little Rock Convention Center Hotel be deferred until July.