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Some are hesitant to use public transportation during the coronavirus outbreak. Here’s what transportation officials are doing to help reduce risk.

USA TODAY

DENVER – Sisters Trinity and Kiki Williams looked around the crowded bus stop as the #15 bus rumbled down Colfax Avenue toward them. 

The bus looked to be about half full, the driver wearing a bandanna stretched across his nose and mouth to comply with government recommendations intended to help slow the spread of coronavirus. But among the awaiting passengers, only one wore a face covering.

“I’m damn nervous,” said Kiki Williams, 19. “There’s too many of us.”

For protection, the women, who are African American, wore blue rubber gloves but no masks. “We forgot them at home,” said Trinity Williams, 18.

Like millions of Americans, the Williams sisters depend on public transit at a time when health officials have told Americans to stay 6 feet apart and recommended that they wear face masks in public.

“It’s the only transportation we’ve got right now,” said Trinity Williams, whose car broke down and won’t be repaired for weeks.

While transit ridership has dropped dramatically across the country during the coronavirus outbreak, millions of Americans are still riding public buses and trains, putting themselves and anyone they encounter at risk as they commute to work, go to the grocery store, visit the doctor, or, like the Williams sisters, travel to see family. 

A passenger loads his bike onto an RTD bus in Denver before boarding during the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: Trevor Hughes/USA TODAY)

Experts say most of the people who have stopped riding are white-collar workers who can work from home and who tend to be white, leaving many of the country’s poorest workers, who are disproportionately people of color, with no other choice but to pack into a small space designed to carry lots of people. In New York City, at least 41 transit workers have died from coronavirus infections, far more than police officers and firefighters.

“As always, higher-income households have more choices,” said Evelyn Blumenberg, director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and an urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Luskin School of Public Affairswho studies how urban structures affect low-wage workers. “For low-income workers who have to take transit, they’re in a confined place, in close proximity to other people. Their problems are compounded. They have no other option.”

Statistics collected by the app developer Transit suggest white riders have largely abandoned buses and trains: A survey of 15,000 of the company’s U.S. users revealed that only 22% of people using transit right now are white, compared to 40% normally. Transit is one of the most popular navigation apps for iPhones and Android phones, with millions of active users across the United States and Canada.

Preliminary data from states such as New York, Colorado and Michigan suggests African Americans and other minorities are dying from coronavirus-related complications at a much higher rate than their white counterparts, in