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Riders catch the Sprinter at the Cal State San Marcos station. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

It was late January, and the words coronavirus and COVID-19 were not yet part of the region’s daily lexicon. Yet, Matthew Tucker, CEO of the North County Transit District which runs the Coaster and Sprinter trains and Breeze buses, was rallying his staff to prepare for the incoming public health crisis.

“What are we doing? Let’s be proactive,” Tucker wrote his safety chief and other agency executives on Jan. 23, with the subject line “Coronavirus,” referring to the highly contagious virus that has since been declared a global pandemic.

A review of emails obtained so far by Voice of San Diego under the state’s public records laws shows Tucker was one of the first local government leaders to begin discussing and planning for the virus behind closed doors. But because little was known publicly about the virus in January, NCTD officials looking to learn more locally to help their response were largely on their own.

It’s unclear precisely what prompted Tucker’s query, but it came three weeks before San Diego County declared a coronavirus emergency, more than five weeks before California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency and seven weeks before San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer declared a city emergency in mid-March.

The first case of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, wasn’t announced in San Diego County until early March, more than a month after Tucker’s email.

Following Tucker’s call to action, Karen Tucholski, NCTD’s chief administrative officer, went in search of county guidance.

“The County doesn’t have anything. The CDC only has general information on the virus. There is nothing special regarding any fact sheets or other formal health safety guidance which is specific to this current situation. Likely since this is not yet considered a severe threat here yet,” Tucholski wrote Tucker on Jan. 24.

Tucker replied to Tucholski the next day, suggesting his team craft a short message pointing employees and contractors toward resources.

North County Transit District emails show the agency’s in-house attorney wanted to delay sending employees a Jan. 28 memo drafted about the coronavirus until a case was confirmed in San Diego. On Jan. 29, the memo was sent, encouraging employees to avoid close contact with sick people, stay home if they are sick, wash their hands for 20 seconds and frequently clean touched objects and surfaces, among other preventative steps.

“It was challenging at first to find credible information,” Sean Loofbourrow, NCTD’s security chief, told VOSD. Loofbourrow said the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were the primary sources for virus guidance before the state and county put out information. “We tried to be as proactive as possible to make sure we can still provide essential service and make sure we can do it in a safe manner for our customers and employees.”

Some communications from the state did come early, though.

Cal/OSHA, California’s division of occupational safety and health, sent NCTD officials and others a Jan. 28 message called “Coronavirus: Don’t Panic, but Be Prepared.” The agency said two Californians who traveled to Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated, had contracted the virus, but, “as of yet there is no indication of widespread infection in these United States.”

The Cal-OSHA message spurred NCTD officials to feature the coronavirus in the agency’s monthly employee safety article, emails show.

Key NCTD personnel soon began fielding more COVID-19-related messages from internal and external sources. Emails show officials continued to gather information and mobilize well before most members of the public were aware of the coming threat. They discussed disinfectants to combat the virus and even considered some legal ramifications.

On Jan. 31, NCTD attorney Lori Winfree forwarded Tucker, the CEO, an email with coronavirus legal advice for employers urging them to create communicable illness policies, and follow up with ill workers. It warned, “the outbreak may implicate other laws that prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities or medical conditions, obligations under workers’ compensation laws, and collective bargaining obligations.”

Emails show Bombardier Transportation, the company that operates and maintains the NCTD trains, reached out to NCTD officials Feb. 10 with a notice its supply chain could be interrupted by the outbreak in China.

A March 2 email reveals questions arose about breakroom cleaning frequency at a site shared with Metrolink when Metrolink was conducting a review of coronavirus preparedness.

“Ahha. Yeah this (coronavirus) is going to get ugly I think,” wrote John Ross of Bombardier to Scott Loeschke, NCTD’s facilities director. Loeschke later asked Ross why cleaning wasn’t happening on weekends, as required by the contract.

The following day, another NCTD employee was separately questioning how much cleaning was necessary to respond to the coronavirus.

Calvin Slay, a bus system safety specialist for NCTD, emailed some colleagues on March 3 an article about New York’s heightened subway cleaning regimen asking if it was “Overkill?”

Tucker separately sent the same article to some of the same NCTD recipients hours later with the subject line, “Disinfecting Revenue Equipment” and a request: “Please advise your collective thoughts about this on our buses, trains, and facilities,” records show.

Also on March 3, Tucker circulated to his team an invitation to a COVID-19 webinar hosted by the American Public Transportation Association. He called it an “Excellent opportunity for information gathering.”

On March 4, emails show NCTD officials convened a coronavirus meeting to discuss safety, security and communications for internal and external audiences.

The same day, Brian Burkett, NCTD’s chief of customer experience, circulated a COVID-19 response plan internally that contemplated service reductions, as well as the need to shift workers to work from home, records show.

“At this time, the situation remains fluid, though the virus is very mild in the vast majority of cases. We need to all be on the same page and able to assist each other in maintaining service levels and a level of knowledge and awareness for internal and external customers in order to combat disinformation,” Burkett wrote. “We will need to identify roles amongst this team to ensure we are fully coordinated. This is an excellent opportunity to test our plans.”

In another message, Adan Renteria, a senior quality control supervisor, asked some colleagues about which cleaning products were being used and whether they were effective in killing the virus.

After more than a month of information-gathering behind the scenes and internal employee memos, NCTD published information about the coronavirus for the public on its website March 10, transit officials said.

Now, amid widespread school and business closures and orders to socially distance and shelter-at-home, NCTD gets to watch its operating revenues freefall while continuing to discourage riders from using its services.

Ridership systemwide was down 73 percent with just 9,700 riders on April 3, compared with the same day last year, NCTD data shows. Rail routes have been cut by 50 percent. Officials estimate fare revenue losses are costing $1.1 million per month.

Still, no furloughs or layoffs have occurred for the roughly 140 NCTD employees and 800 third-party vendors that operate and maintain the rail and bus transit system, said Loofbourrow, the security chief.

“The goal is to keep employees on the books,” Loofbourrow said. Some are home doing online training so they can perform other NCTD jobs remotely during the crisis, while operators on trains and buses still running wear masks. Bus riders who must ride enter through the rear doors to limit contact with the operator.

NCTD board members will receive an update on the impact COVID-19 has had on the agency’s operations and finances Thursday. Some federal stimulus funds will help offset the damage and transit officials plan to seek emergency state aid also available, according to the board agenda.

Another revenue stream for NCTD – the county’s sales tax-backed TransNet program overseen by SANDAG – is also likely to impact the agency to some extent down the road. Total TransNet losses to COVID-19 were recently projected to land somewhere between an optimistic $29 million and $534 million, if a prolonged recession is ahead.

After spending nearly $165 million last fiscal year on operations, NCTD had nearly $510 million still in the bank, or 32 percent of its operating costs, audited financial statements show.

Ashly McGlone

Ashly is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at ashly.mcglone@voiceofsandiego.org...

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