The union representing Winnipeg Transit drivers is pushing governments to fund additional safety measures to prevent crowded buses from becoming COVID-19 hot spots.

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The union representing Winnipeg Transit drivers is pushing governments to fund additional safety measures to prevent crowded buses from becoming COVID-19 hot spots.

On Dec. 24, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 asked the city to provide medical-grade masks for its members, arguing the highly contagious Omicron variant is especially threatening to those travelling in confined spaces.

"Each bus driver (can be) in contact with (many) people per day and they’re in an enclosed space as well. Proper (personal protective equipment) will hopefully help prevent our drivers from catching (and spreading) COVID," said James Van Gerwen, ATU 1505 executive vice-president.

The union also asked the City of Winnipeg to supply disposable masks for riders, provide rapid test kits for drivers, enhance public education about COVID-19, and staff extra buses to help avoid crowding.

On Jan. 4, its leaders sent a similar request to the Manitoba government, specifically asking for KN95 masks for drivers.

While Transit has since confirmed it will provide the medical-grade masks for employees, the union said Omicron has now infected too many drivers to rely on that alone.

ATU 1505 president Romeo Ignacio said 27 drivers have told the union they are isolating after testing positive for COVID-19 or experiencing COVID-like symptoms.

Transit confirmed there are a total of 56 active COVID-19 cases among all of the department’s employees (not just drivers), raising the total number of cases to 139 since the pandemic began.

Among all city staff, there are 270 active COVID-19 cases, with 670 cases since the start of the pandemic.

A Winnipeg Transit spokeswoman said upgraded masks will begin to be provided to drivers upon request Thursday, as supply allows, though these will be surgical models.

"Transit operators’ interactions with members of the public are typically brief, and the use of tight-fitting respirators such as an N95 (which requires fit testing and other considerations) is not recommended at this time," wrote Megan Benedictson.

Benedictson noted drivers are also protected by safety shields, frequent vehicle sanitization, and a mask requirement for both operators and passengers.

However, the union said more measures are desperately needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from causing service interruptions.

"Once a driver is off, that’s one less bus that can be put out on the roads," said Van Gerwen, also urging the municipal and/or provincial government to crackdown on Transit mask use.

"No tickets are being issued by (Winnipeg Transit) and, if they won’t, somebody’s got to be put in charge who will," he said.

Van Gerwen said he believes a recent provincial decision to let MLAs, Liquor Marts and casinos hand out 1.4 million boxes of KN95 masks for free between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2 shows there should be enough supply to support Transit as well.

"We believe it’s the city’s responsibility provide proper PPE… I don’t see the rationale of the province just handing out millions of masks to the general public but not (wanting) to protect the people who are driving the essential service personnel to their jobs," he said.

Benedictson said recent counts show more than 99 per cent of Transit riders wear masks on buses but compliance will continue to be monitored.

"As mask compliance has remained extremely high on buses, no tickets (for not wearing a mask) have been issued to date," she said.

With ridership still well below normal levels amid the pandemic, the service isn’t considering setting strict capacity limits for each bus at this point, she added.

In a written statement, a provincial spokesperson said there are now more than 3,000 officials who can enforce public health orders, such as mask use on buses, including City of Winnipeg staff. The province confirmed current health orders do not set capacity limits on buses.

The province said municipal governments are responsible for providing staff with protective equipment.

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.