Detroit bus riders choose between lives, livelihoods amid COVID-19 pandemic

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Andre Morris, 17, of Harper Woods rides on bus 17  in Detroit on May 18, 2020. To protect the health and safety of our customers and employees, DDOT is temporarily suspending fare collection for all trips and requesting that customers limit non-essential bus travel until further notice.

Detroit — As the lockdown over the coronavirus softens, people have begun to gingerly leave their homes.

But one group had already been going out. In fact, they never stopped.

They’re not brave. They’re not crazy. They’re just regular Detroit denizens who need to go to work or the store. They don’t have the types of jobs that can be done from home, and they don’t own a car.

They have to choose between their lives and livelihoods, which is no choice at all.

“It’s insane,” said Lorenzo Smith, 33, who is a manager at a Lowe’s. “It makes a good man not want to go to work.”

Every morning Smith is one of 17,000 people who roll the dice, schlepping to a bus stop in Detroit and clambering aboard an enclosed box populated with the poor and infirm. And they hope today isn’t the day they catch the novel coronavirus.

In fact, some might unknowingly bring the disease aboard the vehicle and leave it behind. With 1,614 deaths and 10,927 cases, Detroit is one of the hardest-hit cities in the U.S.

The Detroit News spent a week riding the No. 17 bus, talking to passengers, surveying the damaged landscape around them.

Stretching from the eastern edge of Detroit to the western one, the route passes through some of the most infected neighborhoods of the city.

And it travels along Eight Mile, where the predominantly white suburbs on one side mostly have been spared the worst ravages of the disease while the black populace on the other side has been shattered by it.

One in four Michigan deaths from COVID-19 have been in Detroit, according to state figures. Blacks account for 14 percent of the state population but 40 percent of the deaths.

'They want to kill me'

The passengers last week were going to stores, friends’ homes and a doctor’s appointment. Others were going to jobs as janitors, cashiers, clerks and home health aides.

Roughly 1 in 4 workers living in Detroit are deemed "essential" and are working on the front lines, according to the Census.

The workers were helping prop up a sputtering economy. And some were doing it for the princely sum of $8 an hour.

But Jerry Barker, 26, who makes that wage at a car wash, considers himself fortunate. At least he’s working, he said.

If he can avoid getting sick on the bus, he would be happier still.

"It’s scary, more than anything,” Barker said. “You don’t know if people are sick or what’s going on.”

Riding a Detroit bus was a joyless affair long before it began carrying a whiff of death.

It’s loud. The seats are worn. Every bump of Michigan’s rugged roads can be felt.

The buses were littered with candy wrappers, empty coffee cups, an orange peel. A discarded mask had a large brown stain matched by a stain on the seat beside it.

Ads above the windows contributed to the gloom, describing crime prevention, addiction recovery, mental health services and human trafficking.

With dread added to the despair, a cough by a passenger sets nerves on end. A cough by a passenger without a mask last week ignited the bus driver.

“Oh, no, you got to put the mask on,” said the driver, Andrew Love. “The last time a guy coughed, my co-worker died.”

He was referring to driver Jason Hargrove, who died from COVID-19 after posting a Facebook video about a customer coughing on him. Of the 327 city bus drivers, 24 have tested positive for the disease, the city said.

Eric Colts, a Detroit bus driver, told a U.S. House committee last week he feels unsafe and it will only get worse as the state opens its workforce.

Andrew Love drives the 17 bus on Eight Mile Road in Detroit on May 18, 2020. To protect the health and safety of its customers and employees, DDOT is temporarily suspending fare collection for all trips and requesting that customers limit non-essential bus travel until further notice.

But Hakim Berry, Detroit's chief operating officer, said the city offers an unlimited supply of personal protective equipment to bus drivers.

Passengers are entering and exiting through the back of the bus while there's an eight-foot separation between riders and bus drivers to avoid direct contact, he said Thursday. 

"We're asking people to social distance on the bus and to please wear their mask so the conscientious rider can feel safe," he said. "We're all playing in the sandbox together, let's play fair."

The department sanitizes buses twice a day and deep cleans them every night, he said. About 20,000 masks are distributed to the 155 buses each day.

While masks aren’t mandatory, virtually every passenger wore one last week. A few donned gloves. One clutched a Bible.

Every bus is supposed to have a box of masks near the back door, but the box was invariably empty or missing completely. Riders said they’ve seen people mount the bus, grab a handful of masks and jump back off.

The passenger on Love’s bus put on a mask, but the driver was still revved up. Love launched into an expletive-filled soliloquy that described how some people confront him when he insists they wear a mask.

“They act like you’re from the streets like they are,” said Love, 50. “They want to fight you. They want to kill me.”

Social distancing abandoned

The 40-foot buses had limited seating. The front third was roped off with a yellow chain to prevent commuters from getting close to the driver. Boarding is in the rear.

Quaint notions of limited gatherings and staying six feet apart were routinely discarded.

Because of the virus, the buses are supposed to be limited to 10 people but quickly eclipsed that number and sometimes doubled it.

Riders often changed seats as they scrambled to fill a row that had just become vacant. But they quickly ran out of options.

An employee who did not want to be identified disinfects the 17 bus during the stop at Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit on May 18, 2020. This is the halfway point of the eastbound loop from the State Fair Transit Center and sits there for approximately 30 minutes.

Signs saying alternate seats should be left vacant were ignored.

A man made a sweeping motion with his hand to shoo away a younger man who had tried to sit next to him.

“I ain’t dead yet,” said the older man, Anthony Smith, 59.

Other passengers just got up and switched seats when someone sat next to them.

Even when riders aren’t sitting shoulder to shoulder, they’re within several feet of each other in the cramped conditions.

Commuters weren’t the only threat on the city bus. Pathogens could be lurking on the seats, poles, pull cords. They could be in the air.

Many travelers blithely grabbed the bus poles with their bare hands.

But not Steffan Bostic. Before sitting down, he swept a seat with his hand and then cleaned the hand with sanitizer.

“It’s crazy,” Bostic said. “Now they say dogs get it. I was gonna get a puppy. I think I’m gonna wait.”

At the end of each run, workers armed with spray bottles of disinfectant wipe down the bus interior for several minutes.

The city transit system received $64 million from the federal government, the Trump administration said Thursday.

The money for the Detroit Department of Transportation, which comes from the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, will be used for increased bus cleaning and additional masks and gloves for workers.

Free rides lure care-free riders

Fares have been waived during the pandemic so drivers wouldn’t have to interact with passengers.

But the free rides have attracted casual travelers, including the homeless.

Some of the dispossessed, who seemed to prefer the rear seat, panhandled during the trip.

Bill McLoven, 35, who had slept in an abandoned home, was taking the bus to a grocery store, where he planned to ask shoppers for money.

He wore a mask made from a Hulk bed sheet. The sheet and his entire wardrobe came from a clothing bin outside a gas station.

“If I haven’t had it, it’s a miracle,” McLoven said about the virus. “I’m not going to be able to stop it.”

William McLoven, 35, of Detroit talks about riding the DDOT bus in Detroit on May 18, 2020. McLoven, who says he is homeless and squats in an empty home, made his mask from a bedsheet and says he makes one every few days.

While some drivers ignored the 10-passenger limit, others strictly enforced it.

On the strict buses, the casual commuter prevented workers from riding because all the allotted seats were taken. So the bus whizzed by bus stops as the people waiting there fumed.

Because the buses were on a reduced schedule, the riders had to wait 25 minutes for the next one.

Passengers aren’t the only ones upset by all of the homeless.

Love, the driver, continuing his dissertation from before, fumed that the homeless spent their nights drinking and drugging and then sleep on the bus during the day.

“It’s terrible, man,” he said. “This is the dirtiest thing you can ride on in your life.”

Love made it sound like he was driving a petri dish on wheels.

The buses are doing more harm than good, just transporting the disease from one part of the city to another, he said.

If this weren’t discomfiting enough, an automated voice repeatedly interrupted Love to blurt “welcome aboard” despite the bus being far from any stop.

It made one wonder, in the middle of a pandemic, what exactly was entering the vehicle.

'You can't live a normal life'

As the bus slouched toward Bethlehem, the scene outside its windows also told the story of Detroit.

After two months of slumber, Eight Mile was rumbling awake.

The bus passed the full parking lots of supermarkets and the empty ones of shopping malls.

The loneliest spot along the route might be the bus stop in the middle of the oceanic parking lot of the Eastland Center.

That’s where Andre Morris joined the fray. He was going to a store in Warren to get his cellphone fixed.

“Not really,” Morris, 17, said when asked if he felt safe aboard the bus. “You don’t know who has it (the virus).”

But that didn’t stop him from taking the bus to the store or school, when there was school. It was too convenient to pass up, Morris said.

The bus passed pot shops and fast-food restaurants that were doing a steady business.

Alas, churches and strip clubs, who compete against each other for the most fanciful facades along Eight Mile, remained closed.

The bus passed the dispossessed, who were taking precautions against the virus.

At the Woodward Avenue overpass, a homeless man asking motorists for money collected it in a basket tied to the end of a six-foot pole.

Finally, the bus passed car-related businesses whose sheer number mocked those relegated to public transit.

Raymoan Autrey, 48, of Detroit takes the mask given to him by the bus driver before he enters the 17 bus in Detroit on May 18, 2020. To protect the health and safety of its customers and employees, DDOT is temporarily suspending fare collection for all trips and requesting that customers limit non-essential bus travel until further notice.

Every other site along the 25-mile route seemed to be a used car lot, auto repair, oil change, car wash, gas station, muffler shop, car detailing or auto parts store.

Ray Autrey, 48, would love to have a car. Then he wouldn’t have been waiting for the bus in the rain last week holding a torn bag of groceries in both arms.

The virus was just one more thing he said he had to worry about.

“I can’t live a normal life,” Autrey said at the bus stop next to Ascension St. John Hospital. “How are you gonna live a normal life when you have the disease around?”

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Twitter: @prima_donnelly