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CINCINNATI -- Metro will begin charging fares to ride the bus again by the end of the week, after officials said free rides were creating opportunities for people to gather against the state's stay-at-home order.
During Mayor John Cranley's daily COVID-19 briefing, Cincinnati Metro CEO Darryl Haley Monday said the transit agency will resume collecting fares by Friday, after crews have installed plexiglass shields to separate bus operators from passengers boarding the buses.
Crews will begin installing the shields on Tuesday, Haley said.
Over the weekend, a Facebook video revealed that a large crowd had gathered in Over-the-Rhine, apparently in explicit defiance of Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton's stay-at-home order issued last month, Cincinnati police said. Cranley said Monday that buses being free to ride contributed to the illegal gathering.
"This is a trial-and-error issue," Cranley said. "We have to reverse course quickly and change that culture quickly. If we can't stop the mass gatherings, we may have to take more extreme measures."
Cranley added that the next step would be shutting down Metro bus service altogether.
"We want to make sure buses are there for people who need them, but we reserve the right, if it becomes too out of hand, to shut them down completely. That's not what we want," he said, adding that he was a proponent of Metro's move to suspend fare collection amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Cranley's chief of staff, Bobbi Dillon told WCPO by email following Cranley's briefing: "We were told by police that multiple people who were spoken to by police during that incident that they had traveled down to OTR via Metro bus."
Transit advocate Cam Hardy thinks reinstating fares is a bad idea.
"We are being shortsighted," said Hardy, who heads up the Better Bus Coalition, a Metro bus rider advocacy group. "Other cities across the United States are offering free fare. Why are we reversing course? If we are worried about people riding the bus with no purpose, we should address that instead of punishing workers who take the bus.
"Fares should be free until this pandemic is over."
At the time the Facebook video in question was recorded, Metro was operating most local routes on Saturday schedules. Eight local routes stop within a short walking distance from the Shell gas station at the corner of Liberty and Walnut streets, where the "block party" was taking place. Of those eight routes, five continue Saturday service past midnight. Of those routes, Route 21 runs the latest, with its last drop-off at Government Square occurring at 12:58 a.m.
On March 25, Metro announced they would reduce service and suspend fare collection in order to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. The Butler County Regional Transit Authority and the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky enacted similar measures the week prior.
The logic behind suspending fare collection was to allow riders to board using the buses' rear doors, to keep a safe distance between riders and bus operators, as well as to relieve new financial burdens that have emerged as a result of the outbreak.