Photo: Pictured above from left to right, Crown Consulting Group’s Lenzy Williams, Etowah County Rural Transportation Director Lora Weaver and driver Brenda Davis smile for a photo on Friday June 12 after discussing the safety measures put in place to protect the local community. (Katie Bohannon/Messenger)
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
Following Gov. Kay Ivey’s stay-at-home order, Etowah County Rural Transportation switched from full operations to essential trips only. Full transportation services reopened Monday, June 15, but not before establishing all necessary measures to ensure all passengers and drivers remain safe and healthy.
Etowah County Rural Transportation hosted a two-day consultation and training workshop for its drivers on Friday, June 12 and Saturday, June 13. The purpose of the workshop was to give a compliance check on the agency to determine that ECRT is doing everything in its power to create a safe environment for its drivers and passengers.
ECRT Director Lora Weaver stated that though rural transportation is returning to full services, all precautionary measures established during the stay-at-home order will remain intact. In addition to limiting buses to 1 – 3 passengers and implementing social distancing with caution tape, the county is protecting its drivers with a Lexan glass shield to separate them from passengers.
Drivers are cleaning the buses before and after passengers enter and exit, using a spray bottle and disposable rag to sanitize all areas individuals contact. The department also brought in a mister that drivers use once a day to mist the buses with a sanitizing agent. ECRT encourages the public to wear masks when they get on the bus, and drivers are providing masks for anyone who might not have one. If individuals are assisting a passenger on or off the bus, they are required to wear a mask and gloves.
“I want to give a pat on the back to my drivers,” said Weaver. “One thing that people don’t think about when they talk about essential workers is transportation. They are front-line people. They are up close and personal with the public. There is not one thing I asked my drivers to do that they haven’t been willing to do, and I really am thankful for that. I want to recognize not only our drivers here, but all drivers throughout Alabama who are servicing the public.”
Crown Consulting Group professional Lenzy Williams evaluated drivers on Friday and hosted the training on Saturday. Williams connected with the drivers on Friday, joining them for a few routes and observing how they interacted with the public. During the four-hour long training on Saturday, Williams not only discussed the physical action required to create a safe environment, but he explored the emotional and psychological toll of COVID-19.
He commended Weaver for all the procedures, protocols and equipment in place that provide a sense of security for county residents and drivers alike. He explained that it is one thing for a bus to appear clean visually, but it is another world for a bus to be disinfected.
As a driver and supervisor for 26 years, Williams performed trainings regularly and transitioned into training drivers full time when he participated in a collaborative effort to create Crown Consulting Group after retiring. Williams travels throughout the Southern region working with the Community Transportation Association of America, offering workshops and classes for transportation workers.
Williams discussed that people rarely consider how they might get to a doctor if they were to lose their mobility. The average individual cannot afford a handicap-equipped vehicle, which can cost up to 40,000 dollars or more. If someone does not have reliable transportation, he or is she is caught in a difficult situation. Rural transportation seeks to ease these worries, providing safe, reliable and handicap-equipped buses. But Williams emphasized a significant aspect of rural transit that is frequently overlooked and undervalued: how the drivers service and appreciate members of the community, forming relationships with one another.
Williams reflected on one moment during his driving career when he transported a teacher who had retired after 30 years of service. Though people may lose their mobility, rural transit workers strive to ensure that they never lose their sense of importance and place within the community. Rural transit reestablishes a feeling of normalcy in people’s lives, offering those no longer ambulatory the opportunity to return to their routines. Of all transit workers present Friday, each stated that the people they serve made their job worthwhile.
“What I’m finding more and more over the years is that it’s more than just a ride,” said Williams. “[Passengers are] connecting with the community. They’re able to socialize with the driver and they’re able to get out and be a part of what’s happening in the community. Other than that, they would just be at home; and it would be a sad existence.
Brenda Davis has driven for Etowah County Rural Transportation for the past eight years. A naturally friendly and welcoming person, Davis considers the bus her home away from home and enjoys traveling with her passengers. Though some might assume Rural Transportation only caters to nearby trips, Davis drives to Birmingham and Huntsville often, even traveling as far as Muscle Shoals.
While she expressed that the COVID-19 pandemic was frightening at first, she felt she had one choice: to make peace with the situation and move forward for the sake of others. Davis recognizes that there are individuals who require care and remains determined to implement all safety measures necessary to ensure that she can continue serving those in her community who need her most.
“People matter,” said Davis. “There are a lot of sad situations. [Some people] have nobody. We [as drivers] can go the extra mile and help them with their groceries or walk them to the door. A lot of these people, we’re the only people they see all day long, and they like to talk. [But] I enjoy the people, and I’ve met a lot of nice people doing this.”
For years, Etowah County Rural Transportation has proved that rural transit is more than just a ride. Despite the challenges COVID-19 introduced, ECRT’s mission remains unshaken. As frontline workers, drivers and rural transportation staff dedicate themselves daily to provide safe, affordable and reliable transportation to all Etowah County residents without compromising the emotional connections and friendships that make life enjoyable. ECRT represents an agency that recognizes the importance of its citizens and its role in enhancing its community, one bus ride at a time.
“The community has already responded very favorably,” said Weaver. “They feel much more comfortable getting on the bus because they know that we are doing what we need to do to keep them safe. The trips we perform are so important to so many people — if it were not for public transportation, a lot of people would never leave their home. We do a lot of different types of transportation [from] dialysis, the doctor, to get groceries…we also take people to work. We take people to visit family members in the nursing home. Wherever they need to go, we can take them.”