Just two weeks ago, COVID-19 seemed distant. I made minor adjustments, but it was business as usual: I started driving for Lyft early in the mornings before my day job. I’d hop in the car for two hours, usually about five rides, before heading for the office. My typical riders are health-care workers who need to get to their places of employment by 6:30 or 7 a.m. They don’t have cars. For many of them, SEPTA isn’t a viable solution, given where they live and the time they start work. The advent of Lyft has expanded employment options for whole groups of workers.
Some of my riders do tough but essential work in nursing homes and hospitals. One lady had a 30-minute commute from Delco to Montco on a Saturday morning. She was on her way to a 16-hour shift, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., as an aide at a skilled nursing facility. She started doing back-to-back long Saturdays and Sundays because she’d just enrolled in the nursing program at Delaware County Community College and needed weekdays free. I asked her if she packed all her meals to get through 16-hour shifts. She said: “I just eat protein bars. With the type of stuff I have to do, I’m not interested in food at work.” Very matter of fact.
Sometimes people who are obviously ill get in my car, with runny noses, coughs, hands full of tissues. I’ve given sick people rides to urgent care centers. In December and January, I thought the risk of catching a cold was worth the $15 to $20/hour reward.
Then COVID-19 arrived.
Week before last, I started cleaning the door handles each morning with Clorox wipes. After the first rider, though, the disinfecting becomes undone. Rider No. 2 is at risk. Sometimes there are shared rides, with as many as four other people squeezed into my small car; adequate social distance is not possible. Passengers can infect each other, leave the virus behind, or infect me. After I’m done for the morning, I go to my 9-to-5 day job or home to my wife and teenage sons. If infected by a rider, I’d risk the health of a lot of other people.
It’s easy to see that a disease that masquerades as a cold for days before starting to look serious can spread quite easily through casual exposure. However, early last week, even after Mayor Jim Kenney urged people to avoid large events, nearly 20,000 Flyers fans went to the hockey game. The local Chuck E. Cheese was busy this weekend. Neighbors crowded into bars, perhaps making up for the canceled St. Patrick’s Day parades. Finally, the city announced Monday that nonessential businesses will be closed. But we still need people to take this seriously, and based on this weekend, it doesn’t seem as if everyone’s there.
Don’t they understand the danger? Don’t they know they put people’s lives at risk? Or risking their own lives? COVID-19 is real, and it’s here.
Last week, I decided to stop driving for Lyft for as long as we are in this crisis. My family will forgo the significant supplemental income — I can carry our debt a bit longer if the alternative is jeopardizing the health and lives of not only my loved ones, coworkers, and friends but also the riders I’ve come to care about.
And what about them, the workers who empty the bedpans and attend to the ill and infirm? How will they get to work if Lyft and Uber drivers like me stop driving, either by choice or because they are sick? And who will take their places in this health calamity when they become ill?
COVID-19 now looms large. We won’t be able to outrun it. And if we don’t figure out how to support our essential workers, we will not all walk away from the wreckage.