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Coronavirus Diaries: What Your Lyft Driver Is Thinking About Right Now

A driver looking at his phone in a car, overlaid with a mask that says "Coronavirus Diaries."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This diary is written by Peter Jakubowicz, a Lyft driver in Portland, Oregon.

Coronavirus? From a Lyft ride? Are you kidding?” This is Martha, my first Lyft passenger of the day. “You don’t look like a rapist, your car doesn’t smell like pot, and you can read traffic signs, so I’m fine.”

I was beginning my day’s adventure as a potential zoonotic agent in Portland, Oregon. Martha was not afraid. At least of the coronavirus. She was in marketing, and a frequent international traveler. We were headed for the airport.

Martha had me stop on the way and insisted on buying me a large cold brew. She joked about being careful not to mingle our straws.

I had read news reports that ride-share passengers and drivers were “terrified” of being infected with the virus. So I started (tactfully) asking my passengers how afraid they are—and how they rated it compared with global warming or, say, a fatal car accident. I was reluctant to ask, but conversations always lend a better vibe to the rides, even if we’re talking about pandemics.

There did seem to be significantly fewer Lyft and Uber drivers on the road.  Lyft had just issued an advisory. It said:

Take care of yourself

Wash your hands often. And when you can’t get to a sink, hand sanitizer is your next best option.

Keep your car clean

If you’re a driver, disinfect your car frequently. If you’re a rider, help keep your driver’s car clean.

Stay informed

The CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) are continually updating their sites with the latest information.

These guidelines seemed a little fatuous to me. Keep my car clean? I pick up people at the airport coming from all over the world, some hacking their lungs up. “Clean cars” in this industry means cars that look clean, not that anyone has actually properly disinfected anything. It felt like disease prevention theater.

Nevertheless, I had gone to the car wash. Right after, a bird crapped on my rear window before I’d even picked up anyone. I wonder whether birds can carry the coronavirus. I didn’t check the CDC site, and I left it on the window—a potential conversation starter with passengers.

I asked Cristy, on her way to the grocery store, whether she had thought twice before calling a car. “No,” she said. “Unless you’re a medical professional, you’re extremely unlikely to be exposed. And unless your respiratory system’s compromised, it’s not going to kill you.” I put Cristy down as a trouper.

Rick is a programmer and works at home. He’s kept to himself for the last year since moving to Portland. He wants to get out and make some connections. Rick had read a lot about the virus and was no more worried about the coronavirus than about the flu. But he noted, “You can’t trust any data coming out of China.”

I picked up Jerry at a bar in Hillsboro, Oregon. He’d just broken up with a girlfriend and had gone out for a few beers, alone. He said the beer would protect him from the virus. He asked to stop at a Kwik-E-Mart. He returned with a handful of Tootsie Pops and handed me several. “Go ahead,” he said. “See how many licks it takes—”

I picked up Jason, a pulling-guard-size guy, in Forest Grove, Oregon, and drove him to work. He laughed when I asked about the virus. “I ain’t afraid of nothing,” he said. “I got Jesus watching my back.”

Jason had emphasized he always rides in front, and called me by name, not “driver” or “sir.” At the ride’s end, he offered me his sizable hand. I shake it.

My next rider, Bill, said he used to drive for Lyft but now does logistics for a beer distribution company. I ask him about the coronavirus and the other hypothetical means of impending doom. “I used to worry about stuff like that,” he said. “But then a friend got me into microdosing psilocybin. Now I don’t worry about stuff like that anymore.”

I’m heartened by my riders. As a Lyft driver, I’m not afraid of the coronavirus either. There are plenty of other things to worry about—for example, getting in an accident because of sleep deprivation. My kids are told to wash their hands at school. I need sleep more than clean hands.

Rider names changed.