Riders board a RFTA bus at Rubey Park in Aspen. A contested vote Friday by the transit agency's board of directors will see bus service continue from New Castle to Aspen at existing reduced rates.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has been disinfecting most of its buses with an anti-virus chemical in response to the COVID-19 outbreak that has produced nine confirmed cases in the Aspen area as of Wednesday. 

Personnel wearing protective gear have been applying the “virucide” treatment using fogging applicators and mist while buses are at RFTA’s service facility for refueling, said RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship. He said 90 percent of the buses at the Aspen facility that were refueled on Tuesday received the treatment and more buses will be getting it more frequently as RFTA escalates its response to the outbreak.

The chemical cleanser must be aired out of the buses, meaning they are out of service for a few hours after the treatment. Application is labor-intensive.

Drivers have been given ample disinfecting wipes and buses are outfitted with hand sanitizer.

The valleywide public transportation agency also is giving its drivers more leeway in terms of using paid sick leave. And now that Aspen is a “hot spot” for the outbreak, according to Gov. Jared Polis, and limited community spread is believed to be occurring in Colorado, anyone who is in the most vulnerable populations for serious COVID-19-related illness may be asked to stay home from their jobs at RFTA, Blankenship said. That provision could also apply to otherwise non-vulnerable populations who live with or care for those deemed vulnerable.

RFTA’s board of directors, at their meeting Thursday, will hear an update on the bus agency’s coronavirus response, which includes details on a proposal to give employees more paid sick leave if needed. 

“To protect co-workers and passengers, staff believes it is advisable to ensure that employees have sufficient sick leave balances to sustain them through a prolonged illness. Otherwise, in order to pay their bills, they could be tempted to work when ill, potentially infecting others,” says a memo written in advance of Thursday’s meeting.

RFTA is proposing to let full-time employees use paid sick leave even if they have not accrued it yet.

“In essence, RFTA would advance varying amounts of sick leave” to employees who do not have a sufficient sick leave balance accrued, the memo says. “Then, over time, RFTA would apply the sick leave normally accrued by these employees each pay period against the amount advanced, until the total was fully earned. At that time, employees would begin accruing sick leave again.”

Part-time and seasonal employees also will be credited with at least 40 hours of paid sick leave, as part of the response.

Blankenship said such policies are counter to RFTA’s normal culture, which places a premium on showing up for work.

The policies to encourage people to stay home if they are in close contact with vulnerable populations at home may force RFTA to cut back on service, if there is not a full complement of staff to drive buses and perform maintenance. Blankenship said there are various scenarios in the works depending on impacts to the labor force.

Unless directed to do so by state or local public health authorities, the public transportation provider has no plans to suspend service as a preventative public safety measure, he said.

“The guidance we have received so far is to continue to operate because people rely on us,” Blankenship said.

According to the board memo, “In the event RFTA does have to alter scheduled service due to the impact of COVID-19 on employees, passengers, businesses, supplies or other conditions beyond RFTA’s control, we will try to provide as much notification to the public as possible.”

Blankenship noted that the agency has a COVID-19 emergency response plan modeled after the National Cooperative Highway Research Program’s “Guide for Public Transportation Pandemic Planning and Response.” 

 “The NCHRP guide serves as a template for actions transit agencies might want to consider when planning for a pandemic, but it is adaptable and doesn’t spell out every specific action that they should take,” Blankenship wrote. “The plan includes an activation matrix that helps RFTA gauge which actions should be considered depending upon the proximity of the threat the community is facing.”

Blankenship said his hope is that the virus will “go dormant” in the warm months, giving RFTA time to plan for how to handle any resurgence next winter.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.