Coronavirus pressures Grand Forks bus system; driver on paid leave after confronting passengers

In Facebook video, Grand Forks bus driver scolds passengers for being out during the pandemic.

Elizabeth Wolfe stopped by the Metro Transit Center Monday to use the wifi. Due to the coronavirus pandemic the Metro Transit Center will be closed to the public until further notice. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Elizabeth Wolfe needs the city bus.

She would have used it on Monday, March 23, to head to St. Joseph’s Social Care and Thrift Store, and was already at Grand Forks’ downtown bus station when St. Joseph’s staff said there would not be a ready-made meal for her that day. Wolfe stuck around the station for a bit, she said, to use the wifi there. She planned to try again Tuesday.

Wolfe, 50, is one of a shrinking number of bus riders in a town where public and private life has quickly diminished as measures to combat the rapidly spreading coronavirus become more severe and commonplace.

Typically, 800 to 900 people ride a Cities Area Transit bus each day. As measures to prevent the virus’ spread ramped up last week, ridership dropped from 751 people on Monday, March 16, to 366 on Friday, March 20. No one rode on the city’s Friday or Saturday night routes.

Riding – and driving – a city bus can mean relatively close contact with other people and, thus, a potential health risk to drivers and riders alike. But those bus routes are also an important part of many residents’ day-to-day lives.


“If they close down public transportation, me being disabled, it’s going to be a hard time for me to get anything,” Wolfe, who walks with a cane, said. “I don’t even know how long the buses will be running, and that’s a concern for me because I don’t know anybody with a vehicle that will be able to drive me around.”

Cities Area Transit is run by Grand Forks staff but serves that city and East Grand Forks. Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown and City Administrator Todd Feland said they might try to keep the cities’ buses running even under a “shelter in place” order. Several Midwest governors have issued such an order, but North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz have not.

“Public transit for some is the only way they can get to essential services,” Feland said.

For the moment, city administrators have temporarily eliminated transit fares and closed the bus service’s downtown station. Riders embark and disembark through the rear doors of buses that have them.

Dale Bergman, who directs Grand Forks’ bus service, said the city might cut bus routes, but he hopes it won’t be prompted to shut down its transit services entirely.

“We are not going to cut services any more than we absolutely have to,” Bergman said Monday.

And “CAT” drivers themselves are generally worried about contracting the coronavirus.

“It’s just always kind of in the back of your mind,” said Richard Gehl, one of the city's bus driver. “They’ve taken measures, which is nice, but it’s still out and about. … I’m right on the front lines, for lack of a better way to put it.”


Tensions rise

That concern apparently boiled over on Monday afternoon. A Facebook user posted a video of Gehl confronting passengers a few hours after he spoke to the Herald.

As the video began, the incident already was unfolding.

A passenger, responding to comments Gehl was making, said "you're abusing us."

"You're abusing me by putting me at risk for no legitimate reason at all. There you go," Gehl said in a raised voice while he drove. "There's where the abuse is. Can you imagine if you actually had it, don't know it and gave it to me and I freaking die?"

“It’s all over TV: Stay home,” he yelled. “When you’re putting me at risk, I will get boisterous about it. You absolutely betcha."

Gehl is presently on paid leave, and City Administrator Todd Feland is reviewing the Facebook video. He said he planned to speak to Gehl and check out any other video available.


Bergman said the video posted to Facebook doesn’t show everything and that it’s unclear what had taken place on Monday beyond Gehl yelling.

“I don’t know if there had been some conflict from before,” Bergman said.

Short on staff

Beyond Gehl, at least two city bus drivers are off the street because they're worried that their immune systems might be compromised, and that would mean the coronavirus poses a particularly high risk to them.

That presents another hurdle for a department that was already short on staff. Bergman said a handful of “dial-a-ride” drivers have been pressed into service, but, legally, they can only drive the city’s smaller, shuttle-style buses, such as the one Gehl was driving on Monday, none of which have a rear door that’s a modest distance from the driver.

Three of Grand Forks’ nine fixed routes were run on Monday by those smaller buses. That’s partly because some of the dial-a-ride drivers don’t have commercial drivers licenses, which are required to drive the larger buses, but Bergman said it’s also an effort to save money while buses are particularly empty.

As a public service, the Herald has opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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