SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) - Joseph Smith doesn’t have a choice.
Despite concerns about the coronavirus, the Spartanburg man continues to take the city bus nearly everyday. It’s been his only source of transportation for more than 20 years.
He couldn’t imagine life without it.
So the afternoon of March 24 was like any other weekday for Smith. He took a SPARTA bus to the Spartanburg Soup kitchen for lunch, hopped on another to get back to the depot downtown, and then sat with a full stomach in a black cushioned chair waiting for his ride home.
His routine is a little different these days though.
Inside the sparsely-populated station on Liberty Street, which has seen less activity in recent days, Smith reached into a bag at his right hip and pulled out a small plastic bottle.
Hand sanitizer has become his newest travel companion.
“I just started carrying this with me,” Smith said as people walked in and out of nearby doors. Some of the passengers coming through this bus station arrive on a Greyhound bus - they come from states all across the U.S., and there’s no way of knowing if they are carrying more than a bus pass and belongings as they cut through the city.
Smith turned the bottle over in his hands before squirting a dab into his palm. He understands the need to be cautious about the virus that’s infected more than 55,000 across the nation.
“I use it when I get on and off the bus,” he said. “Every time I touch something.”
He paused, then continued: “I also have this…”
Smith turned back to the satchel, reached inside, and pulled out another bag of the plastic, grocery variety. He placed a hand in that bag, turning it inside out and twisting it tight around his wrist to form a makeshift glove.
“I use this when I’m on the bus too,” he said. “Can’t be too careful these days.”
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a lot of inconvenience as cases continue to drastically increase across the country and state. In S.C. schools are closed through April and restaurants and bars have been forced to close dining rooms and serve food via takeout or delivery only.
Some local businesses have seen sales decline by more than 90 percent, while others have closed altogether.
Several employees have been laid off, including nearly 53,000 who worked in the hotel industry statewide.
Public parks have closed. The library is temporarily shuttered. Events like the Spring Fling and Jazz on the Square have been canceled.
The Spartanburg Area Regional Transit Agency, managed by a third-party vendor, remains one of the few services that continues to function as it always has.
“We haven’t made any changes to routes or schedules yet, and we’re not currently limiting the number of riders,” City spokesman Christopher George said in an email earlier this week. “That said, we’re continually monitoring this very fluid situation and will make adjustments as needed.”
On the afternoon of March 25, though, the city announced that it would be waiving bus fares starting March 26.
Ridership has plummeted recently. On some days, usage has dropped by 40 percent.
That decline has been noticeable to Mitzie Kurchin, who works behind a desk at the Liberty Street depot where she handles ticket transactions, helps customers find their bus and, sometimes has to step in to keep the peace when visitors get rowdy.
There’s been less activity all around lately, she said. And she has a theory as to why.
With so many places closed “they have nowhere to go,” Kurchin said.
The SPARTA employee is still around a lot of people each day at a time when federal health officials have asked people to practice “social distancing.”
It’s not uncommon for homeless people to come inside seeking shelter, not transportation. One of the biggest concerns Kurchin has is the Greyhound bus that routinely drops off passengers from New York City, where more than 15,000 people are infected by the coronavirus, making it one of the most impacted areas of the U.S.
Kurchin has made some changes to her daily routine, too.
“I don’t know what kind of people are coming here, and I’m around it all,” she said. “I no longer let people borrow a pen. I don’t let people use my phone. I keep my own hand sanitizer at my desk.”
Inside the depot on March 24, Toby Kasson said he uses hand sanitizer more often now, too. He’s glad he had it on a recent bus ride. A woman across the aisle from him kept putting a rag up to her mouth.
“She just kept coughing,” he said. “I am worried about all of this, but I have to use the bus. So here I am.”
His car broke down in January. Like Smith, who sat a few seats down, he has no other option but to pay a bus fare and hop aboard each day, with hand sanitizer in tow.
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