Molly Sullivan gave herself an hour last Thursday to get to her East Harriet home in south Minneapolis from work in the North Loop aboard the Route 4 Metro Transit bus. Once there, she had to pick up her kids at school and prepare for an evening gathering.
But as the wind chill slid to 24 below zero, the first bus abruptly canceled. Then, about 20 minutes later, the second bus canceled, too. With the heater broken in the bus shelter on Nicollet Mall, Sullivan took refuge in the Minneapolis Central Library, ultimately taking the Route 6 bus to Uptown. But that required a half-hour walk to get home — it was dark, and the cold had sapped her phone's battery.
"I consider myself a hardy person, but that's the coldest I've ever been in my life," Sullivan said.
Across the Twin Cities, similar stories have played out as bus and light-rail service has been overwhelmed by the rapid spread of omicron infections and a longstanding driver shortage at Metro Transit dating back to before the pandemic.
So far this month, some 70 cases of COVID have been reported among Metro Transit employees, including drivers, light-rail operators and others, according to General Manager Wes Kooistra. All told, Metro Transit employs some 2,885 people.
"January is proving to be even more active" than last month, Kooistra said Monday during a Metropolitan Council Transportation Committee meeting.
Since mid-December, 134 coronavirus cases have been tallied at Metro Transit. The number of overall cases in December was the second-highest monthly tally since the beginning of the pandemic.
The transit agency ended 2021 with 420 COVID cases, a 23% increase over the number in 2020.
Other transit agencies nationwide, including those in Washington, D.C., and Boston, are experiencing similar scenarios as the omicron variant spreads through employee ranks at breakneck speed.
To make matters worse, Metro Transit already had been experiencing a shortage of bus drivers and light-rail operators since at least 2019.
If buses or light-rail trains are behind schedule or canceled altogether, Metro Transit "is trying to accommodate customers to let them know" through alerts at stations, on social media, its cellphone app and on its website, spokesman Howie Padilla said.
Charles Carlson, director of Metropolitan Transportation Services for the Met Council, said an existing driver shortage and the omicron surge among Metro Mobility drivers have resulted in the service asking passengers to cancel non-essential trip requests.
"It's begun to affect the on-time performance of Metro Mobility," he told the Transportation Committee on Monday.
"It's spreading like crazy," said Ryan Timlin, president of Local 1005 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents Metro Transit bus drivers, light-rail operators, mechanics and others.
While a federal mandate requires that passengers wear masks on buses and trains, Timlin said that bus drivers, in particular, are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce the rules.
"It's a huge struggle, and increasingly hard for drivers to tell people to wear masks," he said, noting the requests are often met with hostile and even threatening responses from some passengers.