‘I Wouldn’t Get Into a Taxi Right Now’: Cab Drivers Struggle with Essential Status
Chuck Burridge has been driving a cab for 14 years. He’s often at the ferry terminal in Woods Hole looking for rides, and lately, business has been quiet.
“I’m just here in Woods Hole, watching the boats, construction,” he said. “And then watching a lot of TV on my computer."
With the outbreak of COVID-19, he’s wearing a mask, wiping down his car, and trying to screen his riders. He’s not afraid of catching the virus, he said, because he feels comfortable saying “no” to people he thinks might be sick.
“Most of the time I can look at someone or kind of predict what’s going on or what type of ride, or … by asking certain questions, or … if they’re coughing on the phone already,” he said. “Sometimes I have to just deny them.”
Burridge, who is the owner, driver, and dispatcher of All Seasons Taxi, is one of the few cab drivers still working on Cape Cod. The Cape has minimal public transportation, making taxi drivers a crucial service to those without cars or licenses. But these essential workers can’t social distance from the people who need their services; during every ride they’re sitting in a small, enclosed space with a stranger.
“We do understand you have to social distance, but people also have to go out and get food and things like that,” said Adam Meehan, the owner of Falmouth Taxi.
Falmouth hospital is a big account for his company, so he’s also armed his drivers with masks and wipes. Ultimately, Meehan said, he feels a responsibility to keep operating, but he still worries.
“We’ve thought long and hard about [it]. Even though we’re essential it seems like an easy way to spread the virus,” he said. “But then again I also look it as there’s those good folks that aren’t going just to a liquor store, that their only means of transportation is us bringing them to a store or the pharmacy to get a prescription.”
If a driver became sick, Meehan said, he’d bar them from working. To limit contact and find a new path for revenue, he’s even tried new things.
“I mean, we’ve even done some deliveries on prescriptions because folks can’t even go out,” he said.
This specialty service isn’t a viable long-term shift, but it was born out of necessity. Taxi drivers already feels the competition from ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft. Closing could mean regular customers switching over, and maybe never coming back.
Still, not every taxi company has reached the same conclusion.
As of last Thursday, customers who called Town Taxi of Cape Cod started hearing a single ring, then an automated message: “We are sorry,” said the voice message from Jon Cutler, owner of Town Taxi, “but because of the lack of [personal protective equipment], for the safety of our drivers and customers we must shut down our taxi service until further notice.”
“It wasn’t really safe anymore,” he said in an interview.
During the first few weeks of the virus, he struggled to stay open. He went from around 25 cabs a day to seven. He laid off most of his office staff, including himself.
“We couldn’t get masks and all that stuff,” he said. “And a lot of the drivers, I could tell they were driving but they really didn’t want to be. … So I just woke up and said enough is enough.”
He still has to find a way to pay more than $10,000 a month to insure his cabs. But it was clear to him—even though they were doing their best to screen out sick passengers—it was impossible to be sure his drivers were safe.
“It’s a Catch-22 because we are essential. I mean, somebody needs to get people home from the hospital, but there is no way that it is safe,” he said. “I wouldn’t get into a taxi right now.”
Town Taxi of Cape Cod is closed until May, at least, when Cutler says he’ll re-evaluate.
For now, he’s left with worry about the unknown, but also, some relief.