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Postcard from Michigan City: How COVID can force big service cuts on small systems

A Michigan City Transit bus.

In early July I recently visited Michigan City, Indiana, a city of about 31,000 located on Lake Michigan by the state line, the local paper, the News-Dispatch, had a startling announcement on its front page. Michigan City Transit, the city’s bus system, was shortening service hours after five out of the seven bus drivers who were tested for COVID-19 came up positive for the disease.

At the time, Indiana’s coronavirus infection rates were declining, and the transit system’s ridership was rebounding as many lockdown restrictions were gradually lifted. However, in the wake of the testing the city had no choice but to reduce bus service. For large transit systems like the CTA and Pace, five infected employees would be troubling, but would have little impact on overall service. But for Michigan City Transit, five sidelined bus operators represented a third of the total workforce of 15 bus operators.

Since then, most of the employees have recovered, and the system was back to its full schedule. But the incident illustrates just how quickly the pandemic can impact smaller transit systems, hurting riders who rely on it to get to work, retail, and medical appointments. Michigan City Transit director Robin Tillman said the incident gave her staff a harsh reminder just how important safety precautions are. And she advised other transit systems serving small cities to take health guidelines seriously.

Michigan City is located directly east of Indiana Dunes National Park, about an hour and half from Chicago by the South Shore Line commuter railroad, and an hour away by Amtrak. While the city isn’t as much of a vacation destination as Michigan towns like New Buffalo and St. Joseph further northeast, it has its share of lakeside vacation homes and a harbor filled with private boats. The Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets mall and the Blue Chip casino have also been major draws.

In recent years, the city has focused on redeveloping the North End/Uptown area (where both Amtrak and South Shore trains stop) into an artist destination, complete with artist lofts, galleries and street art. And Midwestern rail fans know the city as one of the handful of places where trains run in the middle of the street, tram-style (at least for another few years.)

A South Shore train runs through the middle of the street in Michigan City. Photo: Igor Studenkov
A South Shore train runs through the middle of the street in Michigan City. Photo: Igor Studenkov
A South Shore train runs through the middle of the street in Michigan City. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Michigan City Transit is made up of four routes covering most of the city, with Michigan City Public Library in the north and Marquette Mall in the south serving as transfer hubs. The system operates between 6:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and 8:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m on Saturdays, with buses running once every hour.

The city also operates the Transit Triangle. This system was originally a collaboration between Michigan City, the neighboring city of La Porte and Purdue University Northwest, with three routes connecting the two cities and the university’s Westville campus.  The system has since been simplified to two routes, with the Black Line making a clockwise loop and the Gold Line making the counterclockwise loop. La Porte pulled out of the arrangement this June, leaving Michigan City solely responsible for the service, which it has been able to continue thanks to the federal CARES Act funding.

According to the Indiana Department of Transportation’s Indiana Public Transit 2019 annual report, Michigan City Transit and Transit Triangle routes had a total of 164,586 riders that year, or an average of 13,716 riders a month.

Tillman said that when the pandemic struck Michigan City Transit ridership dropped by a half. The crisis hit the Transit Triangle system especially hard after Purdue closed at the end of March, leading Michigan City to suspend the Gold Line until further notice. And starting April 13, bus service was suspended between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. to give staff time to thoroughly clean all buses.

A Transit Triangle regional bus service vehicle in Michigan City, Indiana. Photo: Igor Studenkov
A Transit Triangle regional bus service vehicle in Michigan City, Indiana. Photo: Igor Studenkov
A Transit Triangle regional bus service vehicle in Michigan City, Indiana. Photo: Igor Studenkov

Michigan City Transit implemented several measures to try to stop the spread. Tillman said that, like other bus systems throughout the country, including the CTA and Pace, Michigan City suspended fare collection and installed shields at the drivers’ seats. Maximum bus passenger capacity was reduced to 15 riders per. to enable social distancing, and buses were sanitized twice a day. All employees got daily temperature checks and were supplied with hand sanitizers.  While Indiana didn’t require face coverings until July 24, Michigan City bus drivers have had to wear them from the get-go.

But Tillman said that before June MCT employees had a hard time getting a COVID-19 test without a note from their doctors, which made it impossible for the transit agency to do routine screenings.

Indiana’s reopening plan proceeded faster than Illinois’, and, while cities had the authority to maintain stricter regulations, Michigan City largely followed the state’s laissez-faire lead. By mid-May, stores and restaurants were open in limited capacity, and capacity restrictions were lifted throughout June. The city’s Washington Park Beach reopened on May 14 and, like other Indiana beaches, it attracted it share of Illinois residents, as many of our state’s beaches remained closed. Tillman said during that time bus ridership rebounded to about 75 percent of the average 2019 ridership.

Originally, the Back on Track Indiana plan called for all pandemic restrictions to be lifted by July 4, but as the number of COVID-19 cases increased in late June, the state paused the reopening. That was around the time the disease reached Michigan City Transit.

Tillman said that after one MCT driver tested positive, it prompted the agency to test employees that had contact with the operator. Six other workers were tested, including five other drivers. Four tested positive, and two were negative. "With five infected drivers sent home to self-isolate, we simply couldn’t maintain the regular schedule."

For the next two weeks, from July 6 to July 20, Routes 1-4 stopped running at 3:30 p.m., and Triangle Transit stopped running at 3:00 p.m. That limited options for riders who rely on public transit to get home from work, as well as to get to medical appointments.

By comparison, as of August 7, Pace had seen 77 COVID cases and one confirmed death among its employees. While the suburban bus agency has reduced service and suspended certain routes during the crisis, that had to do with pandemic-related ridership drops rather than workforce issues.

On July 20, the MCT schedule returned to what it was at the start of the month. Tillman said that, as of August 6, all of the employees have recovered. Four drivers have returned to work, while one driver is still out. “Having had employees test positive really gave a wake-up call to my staff in recognizing and understanding that [COVID-19] is real, that it's close to everyone,” she added.

Michigan City is now taking concerns about the spread seriously. On July 17,  mayor Duane closed all beaches and Washington Park due to “a huge influx of out-of-state visitors.” And on July 24, City Hall was closed as a precaution, and to give staff time to do a deep cleaning.

Asked what she would recommend to other cities of Michigan City’s size, Tillman suggested trusting science and sharing experiences. “I recommend following all [Centers for Disease Control and Federal Transit Administration] guidance for COVID 19 best practices, and sharing resource and information with other transit operators in your  region," she said.

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