The Media School

Bloomington public services experience decrease in use during pandemic

December 3rd, 2020 by
Photograph by Zoe Auskalnis

General Manager of Bloomington Transit Lew May has worked closely with BT to manage operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says that the safety and health of bus drivers and riders are of top priority.

Craig Mitchell, 35-year-old Bloomington resident waits along the B-line near the Kroger on College Avenue for his bus to get him to his shift at Red Robin. Relying on the bus has long been an option for many residents without means of personal transportation. Recently however, busses are commonly full or running late, according to Mitchell.

“Having to rely on public transportation has been a real pain,” he said. “It wasn’t super reliable to begin with, and now with COVID it makes getting where I need harder.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused many businesses to drastically slow operations or close temporarily, but public services had to remain functioning and open. Many Bloomington residents like Mitchell rely on public services to aid in their daily lives. Guidelines for cleanliness and social distancing along with the exponential loss of funding makes operations of such services difficult.

Lew May, general manager of Bloomington Transit (BT), said Bloomington ridership has decreased to 23% of the normal rate. Bloomington isn’t alone in this trend. Public transportation is financially suffering across the country. Los Angeles Metro is set to lose $1.8 billion and Chicago’s CTA half a billion in revenue due to the pandemic.

“The idea of mass transportation and social distancing, they don’t mesh well,” he said. “When you’re in a bus or a train in a closed, confined

Photograph by Zoe Auskalnis

Marilyn Wood, Monroe County Public Library director, says that the biggest loss the pandemic has brought to the library is the friendly, social atmosphere. With no chairs or lounging areas, Wood says, there’s a loss of community feeling in the library.

space like that, I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable.”

May implemented a fare-free policy at BT so riders don’t pay their fares by the driver and instead go directly to socially distanced riding spots. Other precautions include twice daily cleaning and sanitizing of buses, installing plexiglass inside buses to seclude drivers from the public, and closing the main indoor bus station to discourage gatherings.

BT s also working with local small businesses and individuals to provide masks to riders who don’t have them.

“We’ve distributed around 20,000 free masks,” May said. “Every week we continue to give out several hundred masks.”

Monroe County Library Director Marilyn Wood said the ways the library looks, feels and operates has changed drastically since March.

“The big change is that the library is here to be a social place,” she says. “We invite people to come in and hang out, and they couldn’t continue to do that.”

The library is open seven days a week for the public to use technology or browse for books, but patrons are asked to stay for no more than an hour. Activity inside the main library has slowed from 2,000 visitors a day pre-pandemic to 450.

“During this difficult time, we’re going to need public assistance or public investment to help us get over the hump until things return to normal.” – Lew May, general manager, Bloomington Transit

However, dozens of summer reading participants virtually logged upwards of 1 million minutes of reading.  Group services at the library have all moved virtually.

“The electronic use continues to be higher than it has been in the past, and we don’t expect that to ever go away,” Wood said. “The fact that they are continuing to use the tens of thousands of resources each month is still a positive statement about the value of the library.”

With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight and an economic recession looming, public services will have to adapt to the public’s needs and a lack of financial assistance even more than they already are, according to Wood.

Future relief bills similar to the CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, would be helpful in aiding public transportation, according to May.

“During this difficult time, we’re going to need public assistance or public investment to help us get over the hump until things return to normal,” he said.

Many community members turn to libraries during times of economic decline for resources. Wood said it’s trickier now, as moving resources virtually during times of community financial strain raises issues with user accessibility.

“How many people have access to the equipment or technology that they might need to be able to see it?” she said. “We have to do it more than one way. One size doesn’t fit all.”

Mitchell believes that the adaptability of Bloomington public services during a difficult time resonates how much they care for the community.

“I appreciate all they do to keep us safe,” he said. “It’s good to know they have us in mind.”