[By J. Dale Shoemaker]
Some ride-share drivers are nervous. As coronavirus cases increase across New Jersey the state, drivers are disinfecting their cars between rides, cracking windows if someone has a cough — and even turning down ride requests from the airport.
“I won’t pick people up at the airport,” said Roger Hare, a part-time Uber and Lyft driver in the Burlington County and Philadelphia areas. “You don’t know where they’re coming from.”
NJ Advance Media spoke with five New Jersey ride-share drivers. Three of them said they’re avoiding pickups at airports and four of them said they are routinely disinfecting their cars, either before and after a shift or in between each ride. All five said that they’re taking precautions to remain healthy. Because they drive part time, they might stop driving altogether if the outbreak spreads.
Hare said he has good reason to be worried about picking up airport passengers. Before he decided to stop, he picked up three passengers from an airport, two coming from California and a friend coming from Seattle. In recent weeks, Washington state has seen nearly 300 cases of the coronavirus and several deaths.
“If I’m gonna get it, I’d rather not get it from something I could have prevented,” Hare reasoned, noting that he has a 5-year-old child at home and was recently diagnosed with diabetes. “If I get it from a neighbor, it is what it is. But if I got it from someone I picked up? That’s something different.”
Hare is taking additional precautions. Before and after every shift, he wipes down his seats and door handles. When he starts a shift, he said, his hands stay on the wheel and he tries to not touch much else. And while he used to get out and help riders who had stored bags in his trunk, he said, he’s not doing so anymore to prevent picking up germs.
If the coronavirus spreads further, he said, he might stop driving for a while.
For its part, Uber has advised drivers that they are allowed to not accept or cancel rides if the driver feels their safety is at risk. In an email sent to drivers and obtained by NJ Advance Media, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi warned drivers not to discriminate against passengers.
“If you feel uncomfortable picking up a passenger or completing a delivery for safety reasons, you can choose to not accept or cancel. But it is absolutely against Uber’s Community Guidelines to discriminate against anyone based on their race or national origin,” the email reads.
The email also says Uber will provide drivers with cleaning supplies for their cars and is instituting a “leave at the door” policy for UberEats delivery drivers so they don’t come into contact with customers. Uber also said it will provide 14 days of financial assistance to drivers who are diagnosed with COVID-19. Those drivers’ accounts will be suspended if they are diagnosed, the company said.
Shirley Tamborini, a Lyft driver in the Bergen County and Hackensack areas, also said she’s not picking up passengers from the airport. She said she’ll drive people to the airport but won’t sit in the queue or accept passengers after she drops someone off. The other day, she said, she got “panicked” when someone requested a ride from the airport.
“You don’t know where people are coming from,” she said. “That’s a little more of my concern, like where have you been?”
But Tamborini also said she’s taking things a step further.
“You’re gonna laugh at me, but I am carrying Lysol wipes, disinfectant wipes, tissues, Lysol, Purell and baby wipes,” she said. “It’s for everybody. I get out in between rides and I Lysol the doors and the seats.”
Tamborini, who also works full time in the medical field, said she knows she can be “a little extreme,” but she has a routine after she drops a passenger off: She pulls over and parks, gets out of her car, and wipes and sprays down the door and handle the passenger used. Then she sprays disinfectant on the seat where the person sat. If a person starts coughing during a ride, she said, she cracks a window. Thankfully, the weather has been warm, she said.
“If it’s false protection, it’s helping me,” said Tamborini, who said she has four grandchildren to think of. “I don’t know who’s getting in my car and I’m not taking any chance.”
Tamborini also said that she’s dropped off a half-dozen or so passengers at the train station, and, before they left, sent them away with wipes so they could clean their train seats.
“They love it, they go, ‘You are well prepared!’” she said. “Some people are so thankful.”
During the outbreak, Lyft is advising its drivers to take precautions so they avoid getting sick such as using hand sanitizer and ensuring they cough and sneeze into their elbows. A spokesperson wouldn’t answer a specific question about its airport pickup policy during the outbreak but pointed to its safety website, where drivers are only advised that discriminating against passengers “on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, physical or mental disability, medical condition, marital status, age, or sexual orientation” can lead to deactivation.
The company also said drivers can be deactivated if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 and continue to drive.
In a statement, the company said it’s partnering with the company EO Products to distribute 200,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and other cleaning products to drivers for free. The Lyft spokesperson also said that it will provide funds to drivers if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed under quarantine by a public health agency but wouldn’t specify how much a driver might receive or how the money would be distributed.
Tom Hugaboom, an Uber driver in Sussex County and North Jersey, said he disinfects his car after each passenger leaves. He uses Lysol spray to disinfect door handles, seats and other surfaces he and the passenger touched and also offers Purell hand sanitizer to his riders. Hugaboom, though, said he’s continuing to pick people up from the airport. He knows he’s allowed to skip those rides or cancel but said he’s accepting those rides for now.
“If you pull up and they look sick, you have the ability to make that decision,” he said, noting that canceling rides can count against drivers.
Other drivers, though, said they’re not as worried. Jason Stern, who drives for Lyft and Uber when he’s commuting from his home in Monmouth County to his job in Bergen County, said he thinks avoiding passengers at the airport is an overreaction. Many flights to and from some of the most affected areas are already canceled, he reasoned, so the people he’s picking up are probably healthy. Plus, he argued, if he’s dropping someone off at the airport, it’s possible they could have been in Italy or Washington or another region with a lot of cases already.
“We’re at the point now where if everyone is afraid of an airport then you shouldn’t go to a shopping mall,” he said. “I can’t be thinking about it cause then I’d be afraid of my own shadow.”
Stern is, however, trying to stock up on hand sanitizer and wipes, as well as other nonperishables, for both his family and his riders. He was able to find a small bottle of scented hand sanitizer at a women’s clothing store, he said, but none elsewhere. He said he uses that periodically when he drives.
Like other drivers, though, he said he might stop driving if the outbreak worsens.
“I can’t live in fear,” he said. “It’s smart to be prepared, (but) there’s a difference between being prepared and being afraid.”