The SEPTA trip many riders abandoned in March won’t be the same upon their return.
The ho-hum of a “normal” commute aboard SEPTA — the impatient countdown to the next Market-Frankford Line train, the polite “Is this seat taken?” whispers aboard Regional Rail — is but a memory as the COVID-19 crisis forces the world to reexamine the way it does, well, everything.
“I do sort of miss that gap between getting out of bed in the morning and then actually starting to work,” said Charles Lindrooth, 29, of Francisville. “I’ve taken to walking around my neighborhood in the morning before I start working, just to sort of clear my head.”
But the region is adjusting again as the number of coronavirus cases drops, opening its weary eyes to the first days of a “yellow” reopening status in which retailers, day-care centers, and offices can start yet another new phase of normal. SEPTA is preparing for the slow return from rock-bottom ridership, recently releasing its own detailed reopening guide.
The coming months will be a balancing act for the authority as it monitors the coronavirus’ effects on its own employees, and returning riders join essential workers who have faced grueling commutes throughout the pandemic. Before making a return, they’re thinking about cleanliness and cloth seats, face masks and frequency, as well as social distancing, riders told The Inquirer.
The authority imposed rider limits, marked off seats, and on Monday, began requiring passengers to wear facial coverings. SEPTA General Manager Leslie S. Richards anticipates such steps until there’s a vaccine.
“We are doing everything that we can," Richards said. "While we are able to enforce rider limits, we will do so. But there will come a time when the number of riders who need to use our system will not allow us to enforce rider limits, and that’s why the facial coverings are so important.”
Jamie DeAngelis, 33, of South Philadelphia, "was a pretty heavy SEPTA user” before stopping her commute into Center City in mid-March. She doesn’t think she’ll consider taking SEPTA until after Labor Day, when her employer is expected to welcome staff back.
Even then, she said, she’ll likely consider biking or walking to work in those first couple of weeks.
"Being in those buses on a good day when somebody’s coughing is concerning,” she said.
It’s possible that many who have the option to drive, bike, or take rideshares will do so instead of public transportation. A private vehicle doesn’t always guarantee cleanliness, however.
“I’d rather be on the subway than be in an Uber with a guy I don’t know, with a thousand people that have been in that car in the last two weeks,” said Joseph Cesa, 68, of Center City. Due to the pandemic, Uber and Lyft both suspended services that allowed shared rides, such as Uber Pool.
Stan Horwitz, 58, relies on his bike more than he does SEPTA to commute from his home near the Philadelphia Museum of Art to his job at Temple University. Even before resuming his occasional trips, “it would have to probably be a month with no new cases," he said.
Telecommuting, too, is poised to play a big role for SEPTA. A Philadelphia Department of Commerce survey gauging businesses’ needs upon reopening will help SEPTA shape “how and when to add additional service,” according to the authority. SEPTA’s reopening guide encourages employers to stagger work times in both the “yellow” and “green” reopening phases.
“We are working with businesses, we are asking them to take a look,” Richards said. “Just like SEPTA is reevaluating everything that we are doing, every single thing, we are asking businesses to do the same.”
SEPTA plans to roll out three-day passes geared toward workers without a standard 9-to-5 schedule. Transit advocates also want the authority to pursue unlimited free transfers and to make Regional Rail more accessible — ideas that could result in alternate travel routes.
“Just open up options to everybody until we’re sure that this whole thing is over,” said Nat Lownes of the Philly Transit Riders Union.
Transit Forward Philadelphia, an advocacy coalition, has heard from riders regarding social distancing as well as cleanliness, said the coalition’s organizer, Yasha Zarrinkelk.
SEPTA plans to keep up enhanced cleaning, including sanitizing vehicles at least twice a day, sanitizing high-touch surfaces, and overnight power washing at stations.
Henry S. Fraimow, infectious disease specialist at Cooper University Health Care, said regular cleanings are important, “but the real problem with mass transit that is difficult to get around is the crowding issue.”
“That’s sort of the biggest risk," he said.
SEPTA’s board recently approved a $17 million contract for automatic passenger counters — “vital instruments” in calculating ridership figures. While it’s a tool SEPTA has “wanted for a while,” it will help the authority following the pandemic, Richards said.
“For us to be able to provide the best service, for us to be able to plan in the best way possible moving forward, we need accurate ridership counts,” she said.
On fair-weather days, SEPTA is leaving its roof hatches aboard buses open for better airflow, said Scott Sauer, assistant general manager of operations. The authority has also beefed up how often it’s changing air filters.
“We’re working very hard to keep the system as clean as possible,” Sauer said.
SEPTA reintroduced articulated buses, about a third longer than the buses it was using, to help with social distancing after finding an effective way to clean the cloth seats.
SEPTA is in the process of replacing cloth seats, Sauer said. Beginning next month, 275 of the 543 buses with cloth seats are scheduled to have them replaced during a four-year vehicle overhaul program.
Riders returning to SEPTA should pack hand sanitizer. The CDC suggests public transit riders limit touching surfaces, practice social distancing, and use proper hand hygiene.