Future Tense

Coronavirus Diaries: I’m a Bus Driver in Seattle, but No One’s Riding

Two hands holding a surgical mask that says "Coronavirus Diaries" over a Seattle bus.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by iStock/Getty Images Plus and SounderBruce/Wikipedia.

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 as-told-to essay, from Nathan Vass, a Metro bus driver and artist in Seattle, has been transcribed and edited for clarity by Jane C. Hu.

I’m a bus driver for King County Metro, and I drive two routes through Seattle. Usually I would jump on the bus, not wearing gloves or a mask, and drive around without a care in the world. I trust that I have a good immune system; I’m pretty sure all bus drivers have a great immune system because you’d be working somewhere else if you didn’t. This is going to sound ridiculous, but one reason I haven’t worn gloves in the past is that I noticed it makes me less friendly with passengers. I feel separated from them. Now that the pandemic has hit, I am wearing gloves, and it’s fine, but it’s different.

I have a different attitude toward passengers. With this heightened awareness of illness, I find myself withdrawing or not wanting to reach out as much. For instance, one of my favorite passengers is a guy who likes to yell everything, even really banal statements like “I’m excited to watch football on Tuesday!” He’ll just roar it out. I like to have these really loud conversations with him. And last night he got on the bus and he screams, “I’M FAMOUS!” I think he’d been printed up in a magazine or something. When he said that, a whole bunch of spittle flew out of his mouth toward me! Normally, that’s a conversation I would’ve loved to have. Why is he famous? What’s going on? Tell me about it! But last night I was like, I just want to get him down the street, and I don’t want to talk right now with spittle flying everywhere.

I’m trying to put out that positive energy, but at the same time I’m thinking about how if we’re supposed to be following the social distancing guidelines of 6 feet, that’s impossible on a bus, especially as people get on and off and pay. I don’t want to be unwittingly carrying this virus around and giving it to everyone, especially people who are at greater risk. I’m lucky because I’m young, but what about my operator colleagues who are older, or who have to go home to their families and accidentally infect people?

Now, many of my passengers could be at higher risk. A lot of mentally unstable and at-risk folks who are homeless or very low-income are the folks who are still out here. Everyone else is staying at home. It’s this strange atmosphere where most of my passengers are what I call “nondestination passengers”—people who are just sleeping or riding for the sake of doing so.

As the city shut down, I really noticed the geographic distribution of hourly and salary jobs. At first, the ridership in South Seattle was not that diminished because many people still had to go to their jobs, but after the restaurants closed down, it’s been even quieter. The route I’m doing this afternoon usually goes southbound to pick up folks at the University of Washington, then carries Amazon employees north. But now, it’s a wasteland.

The upside is that for once in our lives, there’s no Seattle traffic anywhere. How long it would take you to get somewhere at midnight is now how long it takes you to get there any time of day.  There’s no rush hour; it’s phenomenal. The work has never been easier, and it’s easy to work overtime because people don’t want to come to work. There’s always a lot of conflicting information and disinformation out there, but there’s an overall vibe of fear and anxiety. I’m surprised at how little direction we’ve gotten; there’s been the boilerplate reminders of remembering to wash your hands, wear gloves—if you don’t have gloves, they’ll give you some—and use hand sanitizer, but nothing beyond that.

I’m also surprised we’re running full-blown weekday service. I’m doing a route that runs every 10 minutes, but there’s no one here. I’m driving around this empty bus wondering when this is going to change if at all. I’m expecting a change any moment now.

There’s absolutely no official discussion about what we’d do if we were told to shelter in place like the Bay Area, and the ominous absence of that discussion makes us all the more interested. This is also an hourly job, and I haven’t heard anything about continuing to pay us if they took us off the road. I feel like Metro is waiting to follow the lead of other transit agencies about service reductions, but I don’t know if that’s really the thing to do here. We have the epicenter of the U.S. epidemic, and Metro has consistently been a leader in transit. This isn’t the time for half measures in terms of dealing with the possibility of widespread infection. I wonder what happens if we’re shutting everything down but letting transit run full force, but I also recognize the obvious need to have some infrastructure, but maybe not this beaucoup amazing frequent service. In any case, I wouldn’t want to be the guy at the top who decides what to do.

This is such an unprecedented situation, and I’m so curious as to what’s going to happen. Meanwhile, it feels good to be out here and being a face for the people, and modeling something other than hiding inside and avoiding everyone. Plus, as a Metro employee, I get to go into work, and they have hand sanitizer! Massive amounts of it. I haven’t seen hand sanitizer anywhere lately, so I guess I’ve got the luckiest job ever.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.