DDOT driver who said woman coughed on his bus dies of COVID-19

Detroit — A city bus driver who complained recently in an online video that a passenger had openly coughed on his bus amid the coronavirus pandemic has died from the respiratory illness.

Jason Hargrove, 50, died Wednesday of COVID-19, according to the head of the city's bus driver union, Glenn Tolbert, on Thursday.

DDOT bus driver Jason Hargrove died a little over a week after reporting a woman coughed on his bus without covering her mouth.

In his March 21 Facebook post (EDITOR'S NOTE: Contains obscene language), Hargrove spoke heatedly about a woman, whom he believed to be in her 50s or 60s, coughing openly on the bus without covering her mouth.

"This is real," the driver said. "Y'all need to take this serious."

Hargrove said he and other drivers were "out here as public workers doing our jobs trying to make an honest living ... trying to take care of our families."

"She stood up there and coughed ... never covered up her mouth," the driver said. "I feel violated. I feel violated for the people that were on the bus."

In the video, Hargrove said there were about eight other passengers aboard during the incident.

"I ain't blaming nobody — nobody. Not the city, not the mayor, not the department, not the State of Michigan, not the government, nobody, not the president," Hargrove said in the video. "I blame that woman who stood on this (expletive) bus and coughed ... it's her fault. It's people like her who don't take (the virus) for real while this still exists and is still spreading."

Tolbert, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, said Hargrove started feeling ill March 25, four days after the incident on his bus, and died a week later.

Hargrove's death has stirred further fear among his fellow drivers.

"They're obviously scared," Tolbert said. "They're up in arms. It's the fear of the unknown."

Tolbert said DDOT drivers are worried despite the use of some safety measures, such as having passengers enter and exit the buses through the rear doors and practicing safe distancing of 10 feet.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Mayor Mike Duggan encouraged people to watch Hargrove's video, saying, "I just didn't think we should be putting our drivers at risk."

He added: "If you haven't seen Jason Hargrove's post on Facebook, everybody in Detroit and everybody in America should watch it. He was infected before we closed the front doors. Some of his language is graphic, but I don't know how you can watch it and not tear up. He knew his life was being put in jeopardy ... now he's gone."

"Mr. Hargrove posted about his health and safety concerns before the front doors on buses were shut to boost safety measures, and it's something I'm going to think about for a long time," Duggan said.

DDOT drivers walked off the jobs and bus service was halted March 17 after the drivers expressed concern over exposure to COVID-19.

Among the problems cited by drivers was a lack of restrooms in the wake of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's elimination of full service in restaurants. Normally, drivers frequently stop mid-shift to use restaurants' facilities and wash their hands, but many found that option eliminated.

At the time, Duggan and representatives from three unions agreed on a series of solutions that included more thorough and frequent cleaning of buses, and available restrooms for drivers.

Other changes included a seat kept vacant directly behind each driver; gloves and wipes for drivers, with masks as available on request; and 20 additional staffers to help clean buses more frequently and thoroughly.

Duggan spokesman John Roach said Thursday the city "went through all of the cleaning protocols and changes in how we operate the buses weeks ago."

DDOT's new rules for safe distancing include having passengers sit "every other seat " on the city buses and urging riders to use the service only for "essential" purposes.

An audio message at DDOT offices advises callers, "If at all possible, stay home and stay safe."

SMART, which provides bus service in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, also has been affected by the coronavirus. 

Beth Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the bus service, said 195 SMART employees are in quarantine out of about 900 because they were exhibiting coronavirus symptoms or came into contact with someone who was symptomatic.

Of 74 employees with symptoms, tests showed eight are positive for the disease and three negative, with five other results pending.

In addition, 40 employees who were quarantined have been cleared to return to work consistent with CDC guidelines, Gibbons said.

SMART suspended fares and asked riders to enter buses from the back starting March 17 after drivers and their union expressed “anxiety and fear” over the virus, deputy general manager Robert Cramer said.

SMART has since stepped up its safety measures, adding a yellow chain midway through the bus to further enforce that driver’s safe zone upfront, he said. 

The bus service also hired a firm to do a disinfecting spray treatment that kills coronavirus and other germs on contact and stays on the surface for seven days. Every five days, all buses and terminals will be sprayed down as well as the SMART offices, Cramer said. 

SMART has not changed its hours of operation or its routes but is running fewer buses. As of Sunday, the bus service said ridership was down 80%.

“We’re just trying to plan for any and all likely possibilities,” he said. “Our goal all along has been to put some level of service out there for people who need to get to these critical jobs, and I think we’ll be able to do that at our current level for the foreseeable future.”

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.