In the past, neon-tinted Uber and Lyft windows have been commonplace in college towns, but the risk of COVID-19 transmission has kept some drivers off the streets.
Online driving services have remained available throughout the pandemic. Some drivers retired for health reasons. Other drivers continue to offer rides and are trying to follow the changing safety regulations set by their companies.
Julie Ripoli started driving for Uber in 2017. She said in her three years working in Auburn, she has driven thousands of students. Ripoli decided to quit driving in May after her father died of COVID-19 in April.
“When you [know] someone who dies from COVID-19, your perspective really changes,” Ripoli said. “You have to take it more seriously.”
Ripoli also said that she thinks Uber and Lyft drivers in college towns are more at risk to catch the coronavirus. She believes she caught the coronavirus in March after driving for Uber during spring break. Ripoli did not get tested because she said the virus was new and she did not know much about it.
Blake Knight, junior in aerospace engineering, has been driving for Uber since September 2019. Knight believes drivers in college towns are slightly more likely to get COVID-19 because the majority of passengers are young and are more likely to be asymptomatic.
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Knight said that throughout the summer months and into August he noticed a decrease of Uber drivers in Auburn. Many of his passengers have reported that in the past, the majority of drivers they had in Auburn were older.
“As far as older people, especially if they have already concerning health issues, I could definitely see why they would stop,” Knight said. “I think that’s why a lot of people stopped in the summer.”
Sandie Sanders drives for both Uber and Lyft and is based in Birmingham. She offered rides in Tuscaloosa on the first Saturday after students returned to the University of Alabama. Sanders had 23 rides that day. Many of her passengers reported having a difficult time finding Uber and Lyft drivers in the area.
Knight said that in the past three weeks, the number of drivers has increased because there has been an influx in passengers after regulations were lifted on bars.
“With the bars opening, it has made it to where a lot more people have started [driving Ubers] again,” Knight said.
Drivers who choose to continue working through the pandemic have adapted as regulations change. Ripoli, Sander and Knight all said that Uber began communicating safety regulations with drivers in March.
“[Uber] should have communicated with their drivers and riders way sooner than they did,” Ripoli said.
Sanders said that starting in April, drivers were required to take and upload a picture of themselves in a mask before they could log into their Uber app and offer rides. Afterwards, they were directed to questions about the sanitation of their car. Uber also did not allow passengers in the front seat.
Sanders said Uber sends drivers free packets of disposable masks to keep in their cars to offer to passengers. Uber has also added a feature where, at the end of a ride, passengers can report their driver for not wearing a mask.
Sanders said that Lyft updated safety requirements to their app three weeks after Uber and does not require drivers to take a picture verifying they are wearing a mask. Lyft sent drivers a kit that included a spray bottle to fill with sanitizer, a fabric mask and disposable masks.
“I think Uber has done a better job because they set the precedent before Lyft,” Sanders said.
Knight said that over the month of September, regulations were loosened. Uber still requires drivers to wear a mask when signing in, but passengers are able to sit in the front seat if drivers allow it.
“[Drivers] have families,” Ripoli said. “We are just like [passengers], and wearing a mask is the best thing to do to protect others and yourself.”
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