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As Israel Reopens, Questions Remain Over Public Transport Safety
Passengers wait at a bus stop in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020. (Tara Kavaler/The Media Line)

As Israel Reopens, Questions Remain Over Public Transport Safety

The fate of one’s health is often in the hands of fellow mass transit riders and the driver

Precautions have been put into place as Israelis transition back into regular life amid the coronavirus pandemic, including temperature checks when entering establishments such as grocery stores and bars, restaurant menus that are either disposable or wiped down after each patron, and a check on proper mask usage when entering malls and other public venues. But none of this applies to Israel’s public transportation system.

Temperatures are not checked on buses or at bus stops and no one is responsible for making sure masks are on correctly, at least initially. Further, bus drivers only clean the handrails used by many riders once a day.

A bus in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020. (Tara Kavaler/The Media Line)

Israel’s Transportation Ministry communicated to The Media Line in a written statement: “Vehicles in public transportation in Israel, including buses and light rail, are cleaned using detergents according to the Health Ministry’s guidelines. The cleaning operation is performed daily, with emphasis on surfaces with increased contact, such as grip handles.

Public transportation operators are responsible for cleaning their own vehicles.

According to the updated guidelines, buses can be filled to 75% capacity, up to 46 passengers.

This is why Jerusalemite Sarah Cohen will not be taking the bus or light rail any time soon.

“I won’t use public transportation until there’s a vaccine or reliable treatment for COVID-19. Buses are uncomfortably crowded during rush hour and I do not feel safe around so many people, especially when they are wearing masks incorrectly or not at all,” she told The Media Line. “We need more buses to alleviate overcrowding and people should be ticketed for not wearing a mask or for wearing it incorrectly.”

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, says there are several problems with public transportation.

“The waiting line, especially at central bus stations … in certain places, it’s totally okay [to take a bus], but in other places, the density is too problematic. On the other hand, you need to ignite the economy to bring it back and public transportation is crucial to that,” he told The Media Line.

Davidovitch also argues that location is an important factor in determining the safety of public transit routes.

“It’s different to take a bus in Raanana versus Jersualem and other places with wider community transmission,” he said.

On public transportation, Davidovitch says, your safety is very much in the hands of others.

“When you’re walking outside, you have more choice; when you’re in the bus, you depend on other people keeping the rules [social distancing, wearing a mask properly, practicing good hygiene, not going out when experiencing symptoms]. If people are, it’s fine. If not, it might be a problem.”

A. Rosen, a rider on bus line 75 who got off at Hebron Road in Jerusalem, feels OK with her transportation options. “It’s perfectly safe to ride the bus,” she said. “I wash my hands as soon as I can when I get off.”

A. Rosen, a rider on bus line 75 in Jerusalem: “It’s perfectly safe to ride the bus.” (Tara Kavaler/The Media Line)

When asked whether he would take public transport, Davidovitch said: “It would depend on the alternatives; it is not a black-and-white question. We know we are taking some risks when we open the schools and bringing back buses, etc. but we need to learn how to live with corona because we are very far from both a vaccine and herd immunity.”

Temperature checks and the frequency of bus cleaning are of less concern to Davidovitch. He says it is more efficient for people to take their temperatures at home every day and that that there are more important steps people can take besides disinfection.

“Cleaning your hands, wearing masks, not touching your face … these are the main routes of prevention,” he said.

He does note, however, that a professional should be cleaning the bus or at least the driver should be properly trained to sanitize it.

Passengers wait for a bus in Jerusalem. May 31, 2020. (Tara Kavaler/The Media Line)

Figuring out a way to keep mass transit safe during corona has been a challenge throughout the world, not just in Israel. The British government earlier this month warned: “Consider all other forms of transport before using public transport.”

In Washington, DC, metro riders have been required to wear masks as of mid-May and ridership is limited to “essential travel only.” New York City is preparing for a June 8 phase one reopening with the subway closing for four hours each night for major disinfecting, including experimental UV light to destroy the virus.

In Switzerland, public transportation companies are responsible for cleaning handrails in trains and other commonly touched objects between three and five times a day.

Back in the Middle East, Egypt began fining people for not wearing masks in public places, including transportation, on May 30. Authorities in Dubai require that the metro train be cleaned after it has completed its trip, in addition to the daily cleaning of each station.

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