(TNS) — The Santa Cruz, Calif., Metropolitan Transit announced Wednesday its plan to create a safer environment for public transportation employees and riders at Judy K. Souza Operations Facility.

The announcement celebrated the culmination of changes Santa Cruz METRO has made to combat the spread of COVID-19. Efforts began in January in preparation for the pandemic to reach the U.S. and escalated in March when the outbreak was declared.

"Today we start a re-launch, or if you will, 'welcome back' for our customers," said Alex Clifford, Santa Cruz METRO and general manager and CEO. "We're really excited to share these great safety measures METRO is taking."

Safety measures follow the American Public Transportation Association's Health and Safety Commitment Program, which Santa Cruz METRO joined on Oct. 12. The program includes following Center for Disease Control and state public health guidelines, cleaning facilities and keeping passengers informed on how to safely travel.

"The safety of our customers and employees have been a priority here," said Santa Cruz County Supervisor, John Leopold. "We pledge to meet these commitments by enforcing specific policies that are effective to protect the riders, the employees and the overall system of the community."

Santa Cruz METRO installed hand sanitizer dispensers at the front of the bus, sneeze barriers between each row of seats and a curtain separating the bus operator and passengers on all buses. Hand sanitizer is not offered at the rear doors, as Santa Cruz METRO is not allowing rear-door entry for now.

All buses have implemented an inside-outside air exchange. To do so, bus operators will open all hatches and windows to allow clean air to circulate throughout the bus.

Employees and passengers aboard buses will be required to wear face coverings and follow CDC guidelines for social distancing. Buses have a supply of disposable face masks for passengers who do not bring their own.

Other sanitary precautions will happen behind the scenes. Buses are sanitized regularly. All surfaces, including seats, handholds and sneeze barriers, are cleaned any time a bus reaches a transit station. Buses are also electrostatically fogged every night as an additional disinfectant.

"Our whole fleet goes through transit centers. Every time a bus comes in, a METRO cleaner jumps onboard and hits the high-touch surfaces," Clifford said. "Throughout the day we keep disinfecting the bus. It's not just about putting stickers and ads on buses, it's about actually doing it."

Capacity limits have been implemented on all buses in an effort to limit transmission. Only 15 passengers are allowed on board at a time to promote social distancing.

"This is probably the most important thing we're doing," said Mike Rotkin, Santa Cruz Metro Board chairman. "We're running about 25 percent capacity on our buses which provides additional social distancing."

There are future plans to increase passenger capacity in coordination with California's tier system but no specific timeline has been determined.

Santa Cruz METRO has also added a number of measures to make bus stations safer. Ticketing vending machines are now outdoors to provide safer breathing environments for riders, Rotkin said. Tickets are also available for purchase on a mobile device via the METRO Splash Pass app.

Hand washing stations have been installed at bus stations, in addition to fliers with social distancing rules and ground markers to keep patrons waiting for the bus 6 feet apart.

"We're running an essential service that the public really needs to have access to," Rotkin said. "We're trying to do everything that's possible to keep our riders, our customers and our employees as safe as possible under these difficult conditions with COVID-19."

Santa Cruz METRO reassured the public that public transportation is safer than it's ever been and encouraged people to return to safely using Santa Cruz METRO for their transportation needs.

"There's been no cases of anyone contracting COVID on our bus system and it's a very safe ride. It's safe and comfortable for people to come back and ride the buses," Leopold said. "If we continue to work together and follow the basic rules, we can keep not only the transit system safe but also our community safe."

(c)2020 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.