The stillness startled Brian Barron. A smattering of passengers sat silently behind the King County Metro driver as the bus rattled down deserted streets—Denny Way, Third Avenue—usually teeming with activity. The riders’ fears, their breaths, were bottled in a space ill-suited for a pandemic. Barron pondered his abandoned surrounds when idling at stops he reached too quickly. Traffic was nonexistent during the initial months of the coronavirus crisis. “It felt like a movie,” he says. “A sci-fi movie.”

Those apocalyptic scenes would remain at a distance for most Seattle professionals. While C-suiters and their head counts could clock in virtually, nurses could only check pulses, cashiers could only scan all those bundles of toilet paper, by venturing into this depleted urban landscape, often on public transit. Public health statistics eventually laid bare a gutting irony: The workers whom officials had deemed most “essential” to the region’s pandemic survival were also frequently the most socially and economically vulnerable to the virus’s scourge.

King County Metro driver Brian Barron.

By the time governor Jay Inslee lifted his Stay Home, Stay Healthy order at the end of May, nearly all communities of color in King County had been diagnosed with Covid-19 at much higher rates than their population totals would have suggested. Latinx and Hispanic people claimed a quarter of the county’s cases despite only comprising a tenth of its populace.

“We have a disproportionate number of people of color who are essential workers, who have a greater potential of exposure to Covid than those that stay home,” says Matias Valenzuela, the equity director for Public Health—Seattle and King County.

The data didn’t surprise Valenzuela. As with chronic diseases, a lack of health care access and housing anticipated the rise of Covid-19 in groups historically victimized by inequity. The outbreak among Latinx individuals, he notes, has lingered due to high uninsured rates and multigenerational homes too cramped for social distancing. These living arrangements stem in part from a broader crack in the region’s infrastructure: The gap between median household incomes of white families in King County and those of Black and Latinx families grew wider between 2000 and 2018.

The pandemic opened other fissures too. While younger residents could gradually return to society during the state’s phased reopening, seniors were told to stay home. Letter carrier Azuma Ohta, 48, picked up some of her elder colleagues’ shifts. She knew the virus posed a greater risk to them, even though it didn’t always feel that way. She’d heard other U.S. Postal Service workers had gotten sick, and her eerily quiet route through Capitol Hill reminded her of the dangers of leaving home. Few cars passed. “It almost felt like the world was going to end.”

 

In mid-April, King County Metro driver Samina Hameed died of complications from Covid-19. The 59-year-old had a smile so warm it could turn a day around, a colleague told The Seattle Times.

Hameed’s death heightened fellow driver Brian Barron’s “fear factor.” He’s comfortable with some uncertainty—as a report operator, the Kent resident fills in on various routes for those who don’t, or can’t, show up to work. But what he didn’t know about the virus frightened him. Reliable information was as scarce as foot traffic during the early days of the pandemic. He doesn’t blame the county, for instance, for failing to institute a mask directive for riders prior to Hameed’s death; national guidance on face coverings 180’d in the weeks before then.

Amid his own insecurity, Barron also observed that our new state of emergency had exacerbated our longest standing one. With shelters potential virus hotbeds, the county moved some people experiencing homelessness into hotel rooms. Others, however, remained on the streets or took refuge in buses like Barron’s, where fares had been suspended but contagious aerosols hovered.

They weren’t the only ones riding out of necessity. An estimated third of Seattle’s regular bus, light rail, and ferry commuters in 2018 were essential workers. “We absolutely rely on the people who rely on transit,” says Alex Hudson, the executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition.

Even if societal systems didn’t adequately support these workers’ sacrifices, the community often did. Joyful noises rang out every night to back the front line. Shouts of encouragement from passing cars helped Ohta make her daily rounds on solitary sidewalks. And before Barron’s riders settled into their seats and silence, many of them delivered a message to the driver that was simple but poignant: We appreciate you.

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