Diary Of A Pandemic Bus Driver

Amid unmasked riders and simmering tensions, a San Fransisco bus operator recounts the personal toll of rolling through Covid-19.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A sign informing passengers about routes for a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency  MUNI bus. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)</p></div>
A sign informing passengers about routes for a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency MUNI bus. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

During two years of driving city buses in San Francisco during the pandemic, I went from being a jovial raconteur on wheels to a zealous enforcer of correct mask usage.

With an elderly parent under my care at home, I was diligent about wearing protective gear and uncompromising about riders who didn’t; to protect myself and my passengers from Covid-19, I made every effort to ensure everyone complied with the CDC’s rules mandating face coverings on all public transportation. For my efforts, I was rewarded with daily insults and occasional threats of violence.

So when a federal judge struck down the national mask mandate for public transportation in April, my reaction was complicated: On one hand, I embraced my role as mask enforcer. But the moment that burden was lifted from my shoulders was also an enormous relief.

To explain why, I must begin with the early days of the pandemic.

When the crisis began, I had been with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency — also known as “Muni” — for almost three years. This was my first bus-driving job. With its 10-hour workdays, abuse from passengers, and constant collision hazards, it was the most challenging position I’d ever held. When people asked if I liked my job, I often invoked the old Peace Corps tagline: It was indeed “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

A passenger boards Bartholomew’s bus in July.Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
A passenger boards Bartholomew’s bus in July.Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

In mid-March 2020, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced a stay-at-home order. The first days of the lockdown were surreal. With virtually no cars on the road and very few passengers, it was the easiest driving I’d ever done, yet not without stress: Every day brought fresh news about mounting death tolls, and there was always the possibility the next person to board my bus would be the one who infected me.

Still, I was surprised when one of my closest friends said, “Please stop going to work.”

The idea of not going to work was contrary to SFMTA culture, and I needed this job, desperately. I had a mother at home suffering from dementia, and my paycheck was crucial to my ability to take care of her. But the agency had given us additional sick hours and promised that workers staying home for Covid-related reasons would not be subject to discipline.

So I took some time off, assuming I could wait out the worst of the outbreak. I wound up staying home for two months. When I came back to work in mid-May 2020, I returned to a drastically altered transit environment.

To prevent overcrowding, 80% of SFMTA’s bus routes had been suspended, along with all light rail and cable car service. The somewhat counterintuitive idea was that the 17 remaining “core service routes” would run at far higher frequencies, so wait times would be reduced and passengers would be able to practice social distancing.

The agency asked us to try to limit the number of passengers on our buses. A standard 40-foot bus was expected to carry no more than 20 people at a time.

Our passengers only sometimes complied with these limits. We had large, laminated “DROP OFF ONLY” signs we would display inside our windshields when we were at capacity, but preventing people from rushing onto a full bus while we were dropping somebody off was often impossible.

Sometimes as I approached a stop, I would use my external loudspeaker to say, in what I hoped was a commanding voice, “Drop off only! This bus is full! Do get on this bus!”

A sign informing passengers about SFMTA service cuts in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
A sign informing passengers about SFMTA service cuts in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Using our new headway management system, I could tell passengers exactly how many minutes it would take for the next bus to arrive. But even if I told them the next bus was coming in less than three minutes, they’d still desperately try to board.

As unnerving as those situations could be, the conflicts with mask refusers were far worse.

In calling them “mask refusers,” I’m being specific with my language. Terms like “anti-masker” imply being part of a movement. But few of the people I dealt with appeared to be motivated by politics or ideology; it was simply a matter of convenience and comfort.

Many would wear their mask when boarding the bus, and then, as soon as they were seated, expose their mouth and nose. They behaved as if wearing a mask were akin to presenting an ID when entering a nightclub — once they’d gained admittance, they could put it away. Or they were counting on the driver to not notice, not care, or not be willing to do the hard work of confronting them.

Some drivers were diligent about this; others felt, reasonably, that the job was hard enough. “I just pretend I don’t see nothing and keep driving,” one of my coworkers told me.

After a Twitter user photographed an unmasked rider and tweeted the image at my employer, noting the bus driver was ignoring the violation, SFMTA replied that it wasn’t requiring operators to enforce the mask mandate. I assume this was for our own safety: Research has found a strong connection between fare disputes and operator assaults.

So I didn’t have to enforce mask use. . Prior to the pandemic, I’d read too many posts on social media from passengers of various transit systems who’d been sexually harassed, subjected to hate speech, threatened, or otherwise made to feel unsafe while riding the bus, and “the driver did nothing.”

I had long ago resolved to never be that kind of driver. Now that a deadly disease was in the mix, my responsibility was clear. My passengers were often afraid to confront an unmasked scofflaw, but I was duty-bound to do so.

“I have a mask!” some riders would insist as they boarded. Some would then take a seat, expecting to ride unmasked. “I’m just going two blocks,” some would say, or “I’m just going to the top of the hill.” Others might try to spend the next five minutes searching their belongings for a mask. Every one of these experiences was a minefield, because I never knew how an unmasked passenger might react when I refused to let them have their way.

For other mask refusers, I was a proxy for every authority figure who’d ever oppressed them.

On one occasion, a man boarded the 9 San Bruno with a McDonald’s meal and drink, sat down, and pulled his mask down to his chin. I told him he would have to keep his mouth and nose covered and he replied, “I’m going to eat!” He only grudgingly complied after I told him I would not move the bus if he didn’t keep his mask on; for the remainder of the trip, he harangued me with insults. “The white man gave you a job,” he told me, “and now you think you’re somebody.”

I realized this man was one of the many passengers who inexplicably mistook me for Asian. I am white, but passengers occasionally looked at my masked face and concluded otherwise. Sometimes those passengers were Chinese grandmothers who asked me questions in Cantonese and were surprised by my lack of comprehension. More often, they were people who disliked Asian-Americans and were enraged I was telling them to wear a mask.

“You people started this disease and brought it over here,” one woman muttered after I asked her to put her mask on.

On another night, a passenger involved in a mask dispute said he hoped I crashed and repeatedly called me a “Chino cochino.” When I got home, I entered that phrase in Google Translate and learned it meant “Chinese pig.”

Operators who really were Asian-American obviously had it far worse than me. In July 2020, one of my coworkers confronted three youth who’d boarded his bus without masks. They spat on him and yelled anti-Asian slurs as they beat him, breaking one of his fingers. In April 2021 the San Francisco Examiner reported an uptick in violence against Asian and Pacific Islander passengers and bus drivers, describing the phenomenon as “part of San Francisco’s own iteration of a nationwide trend of xenophobia and racism against these communities that wrongfully blames them for the Covid-19 pandemic.”

For other mask refusers, I was a proxy for every authority figure who’d ever oppressed them. “Imagine being such a company man,” a drunk passenger once remarked to his girlfriend, whom I’d spoken to because she’d refused to keep her mask on. The couple stayed on my now-parked 9 San Bruno bus for an exhausting 40 minutes, filming and verbally abusing me. They only left the coach after the police arrived.

Passengers on Bartholomew’s bus in July.Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Passengers on Bartholomew’s bus in July.Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

This man’s comment summed up the disconnect between mask refusers and me. It never occurred to him I might be afraid for my life. It never entered his mind I might have an elderly mother at home who could die alone in an ICU if I brought the virus home to her. For him, the mask rule was just an arbitrary thing, enforced by low-level public servants, for no reason relevant to him.

Passengers sometimes alerted me when somebody was riding without a mask, but only rarely took it upon themselves to confront those individuals. On one such occasion, I was driving the 54 Felton toward the hills above Hunter’s Point when a woman yelled, “Operator, this man just took his mask off to cough!”

When I told the man he would have to get off the bus, he replied in a gravelly voice, “I’m just trying to get home.”

This incensed another passenger, who said, “You don’t stay up here. You don’t even know which bus you’re on!”

Which might have been true. The man appeared to be homeless, one of the many San Franciscans who ride our buses in circles without specific destinations. For these victims of our city’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, the early pandemic messaging that “Muni is for essential trips only” was meaningless.

Things escalated — in trying to eject this passenger from my bus, the man confronting him touched his body. I put in a priority call to a supervisor: “My passenger is putting his hands on the guy!” Finally, he left the coach. As with many similar confrontations, the potential for violence stopped just short of being realized.

Some of this wasn’t new: There have always been passengers who would cause problems and dehumanize bus drivers. Pre-pandemic, this was just part of the job, and I rarely lost my cool. But at a time when transit workers around the country and at my agency had died, it felt different to deal with unmasked passengers who presumed to decide for me how much risk I should be exposed to.

These new tensions around driving the bus are not unique to San Francisco. In cities across the US, transit agencies are struggling to retain their workers or hire new ones. In a new report, “Bus Operators in Crisis,” the public transportation advocacy group Transit Center says that workplace stress and safety fears are contributing to the labor crunch: Even before the pandemic, assaults against operators were on the rise.

Adding the risk of Covid to this mix only sharpened my anxieties. Why wouldn’t I feel rage toward people who were helping the virus spread? Why shouldn’t I judge someone who was jeopardizing my life?

Sometimes, I could not disguise these feelings.

“Do you understand you’re showing a complete lack of respect to everybody around you?” I found myself saying to a man on the 19 Polk who kept pulling his mask down. In these situations, all I could do was refuse to move the bus until the person put their mask back on. Since he kept removing his mask, I kept stopping, slowing the coach’s progress as it traveled through the tony Upper Polk district toward the Tenderloin.

As I kept stopping the bus, and as my voice changed in pitch and volume, I lost the crowd’s goodwill. Other riders began to heckle me. “Come on, just drive the bus,” one said.

In failing to manage my emotions, I made the situation worse, eliciting from this passenger empty threats of violence, which he increasingly voiced as the situation unfolded.

Just a day earlier, I’d had a similar exchange with another passenger on the same route. That time, after the person’s refusals to keep his mouth and nose covered, I set my parking brake and turned around in my seat. “I’m sorry, am I being unreasonable?” I practically yelled. “No, no, I get it — my life doesn’t matter to you, and neither do the lives of the other people on this bus.”

Twice in two days I’d made a spectacle of myself, escalating conflicts that could have been handled differently.

After the second incident, I called in sick.

“Every operator has their breaking point,” my union representative told me. She assured me she could fight any resulting disciplinary charge, in case somebody called 311 to complain about my little tantrum. But it wasn’t discipline I was worried about. It was the possibility an assistant superintendent who had a high opinion of my work ethic might be shocked to see a different, darker side of me. 

The pandemic ground on. Vaccines arrived; San Francisco and its neighboring cities “reopened.” Social distancing requirements were eliminated, and SFMTA began to restore most of its previously suspended routes and services. Each bus trip still required me to make split-second decisions about unmasked passengers. I didn’t always get it right, but I persevered, enforcing mask use with the same righteous vigor I always had, despite the toll it took on me.

When, in April 2022, I heard that a U.S. district judge had overturned the CDC’s mask mandate for public transportation, my first reaction was relief. , I thought, .

It wasn’t just that I wouldn’t have to enforce mask use — it was that I’d lost the authority to do so. What would that be like?

It turned out to be pretty sweet.

Bartholomew fist bumps a colleague before his shift.Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Bartholomew fist bumps a colleague before his shift.Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

My first day back on the job was a revelation. When people were queued up to enter the back door, I didn’t have to watch them like a hawk, scanning for unmasked passengers. And once aboard, I didn’t have to check the inside mirror to verify whether they were keeping their masks on, or repeatedly halt the bus and lay down the law.

People would no longer hate me for enforcing mask compliance; I would no longer be in a position to judge them. I chose to let go of the sense of rage and injustice I’d so often felt over the previous two years. Now I could get back to the business of just enjoying my passengers.One regular passenger is a good example. Every time he boarded, I’d remind him to pull his mask up over his nose. And every time we got to his stop, I would realize he’d been riding the whole time with his mask down around his chin. Once, another passenger had complained he didn’t feel safe because I “allowed people to ride like that.”

Worst of all, this man always chose the seat directly behind mine — so he could hide from my inside mirror, I’d figured. But with the mandate over, I realized this guy had probably picked that seat because it was the least disruptive place he could park the baby stroller in which his dog rode.

Before the pandemic, this passenger had always been chatty, and now that I was freed from policing his mask use, I could engage him in conversation again. I learned his name and his dog’s name, and that his dog enjoyed eating yogurt. I got his opinions about various social issues. One night, we talked about our mutual affection for the original “Battlestar Galactica” television series from 1978. (There is no more direct path to my heart than letting me know you grew up with the same cheesy sci-fi franchises I watched as a child.)

I don’t know why my new friend was so unwilling to keep his mask on; maybe his life history or day-to-day experiences just caused him to focus on other things than me.

But now I don’t need to ask him, just as I never again need to visit judgement upon a maskless passenger. The virus is still out there, but I did my part. Now I’m free. And I’m just going to enjoy my crazy job and keep those wheels turning.

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