I am a ridehail driver from the Bay Area and I am writing this as a warning for what is to come in other areas of the US and as a resource for those who will inevitablly continue to drive throughout the pandemic. If you find this useful, feel free to signup for our newsletter. – Christian Perea
The situation here keeps changing faster than I can publish. I first started writing this in mid January as a guide for driving during flu season. I initially decided to hold off for fear of spreading misinformation or sounding like a crazy “doomer”. There were less than 20 cases in the US at that time. Since then, COVID-19 has quickly chased me down to my (literal) doorstep and ruined my year as a ridehail driver. I am now effectively unemployed; As business for Uber and Lyft is almost non-existent in the Bay Area. To make matters worse, choosing to take the risk of driving comes with a 7% fatality rate for those with my pre-existing condition.
The drop in business started slow at first. A few cases, mostly traceable from travel. There were less tourists and less business travelers throughout winter, but still things were still manageable. Then more cases were announced. Mostly traceable through the relatives and acquaintances of the first cases. Then, cases began to trickle in locally that were untraceable via community spread. Major moneymaking events like Facebook’s Global Marketing Summit and Game Developers Conference got cancelled along with a slew of other conventions and events. All of which bring precious corporate accounts to the backseat of my car. The one event that continued in SF, the RSA Cybersecurity Conference announced two attendees tested positive for COVID-19.
As the untraceable case count continues to rise throughout the Bay Area, the major tech companies have begun to mandate work-from-home policies. Some barring their employees from entering the office altogether. Most have at least greatly reduced the number of visitors at their offices. They seem to be following a plan similar to this one rolled out and published by Coinbase. All this started slowly at first with only a handful of popular Tier I (FAANG & gang) tech companies but it has now begun rapidly expanding everywhere. Almost all offices here are now rapidly shifting to work from home policies as they face pressure from employees and public health officials to increase levels of social distancing to mitigate the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
Tourism in San Francisco has now frozen to a level of nonexistence. All of this is bad for business in the ridehail game. San Francisco’s Mayor has banned events on city property (and as of today, all events with more than 1000 attendees. A few miles down the Peninsula, Santa Clara has banned all events above 1000 people. Every local government is asking for more social distancing. Streets typically stacked with cars in The City are empty at rush hour. Blocks that previously took 45 minutes to at rush hour to navigate now yield green-synced lights worthy of setting your cruise control to. BART stations are empty.
The City now looks an awful lot like the week between Christmas and New Years Eve, but with a twilight of apocalypse placed between them.
Uber & Lyft Vehicles Are High Risk For Spreading Disease
Our cars are enclosed environments that carry large volumes of people with varying degrees of personal hygiene. Ridehail is a popular method of transport for those who are sick. We drive sick people to the doctors office and the hospital. More often than we ought to, we drive sick people to work.
We also drive a lot of elderly people who can no longer drive themselves. Providing a newfound degree of autonomy and freedom for seniors who would previously be confined to their homes. Uber and Lyft have aggressively pursued partnerships and marketed themselves as a way for the elderly to travel. I love my elderly passengers because they tend to be polite, talkative, and positive. Using confirmed cases, COVID-19 appears to have a mortality rate of 3% for those above the age of 60, 8% above the age of 70, and 15% above the age of 80. The US CDC currently recommends that people above the age of 60, and those with pre-existing conditions remain at home.
Taxi and Ridehail Are Already Spreading COVID-19
Unfortunately, there are already several instances of Taxi, Uber and other ridehail drivers coming into contact with people carrying COVID-19, getting the disease, and then spreading it to their passengers.
In February, Uber temporarily deactivated two drivers for 14 days upon learning about their contact with an infected person. A few weeks later, an Uber driver was the first person to test positive for the disease in the NYC borough of Queens.
Leading up to spread in the United States, the first death reported in Japan occurred after a taxi driver infected his 80 year old mother in law with COVID-19. The first infection in Japan occurred after a female cab driver gave a ride to a passenger from the Diamond Princess cruise. Another cab driver in Taiwan passed away after he contracted the disease from tourists. Three cab drivers have contracted the disease in Thailand, but so far show only mild symptoms. In Singapore, 2 cab drivers and 2 ridehail drivers contracted the disease. The government in Singapore responded by donating 300,000 surgical masks and mandating that drivers take their temperature before they begin their shift each day.
My Recommendation: Stop Driving “Rideshare” Immediately
As these instances continue, the public will begin to recognize rideshare as a danger and risk factor and begin avoiding us. Your personal opinion on the danger of COVID-19 is not a factor because there will be no business. I realize many of us will still need to pay bills but it is important to recognize that what is coming for us will be a debilitating blow to ride volume and our ability to earn money. If you depend on this as your primary source of income than your time will probably be better spent looking for a different job. If you are driving in a part of the US that has not yet been affected much by the outbreak, than my guess is that you have around two weeks at best to get as much money together as possible before the hammer drops.
Switch To Package Delivery If You Can
If the gig-economy is your only source of income, you may have better chances and much higher business by switching to package and food delivery.
Amazon, Instacart, UberEATS, DoorDash, and Postmates are reportedly seeing an increase in business from people who are increasingly starting to self-isolate. Many of the delivery companies have also implemented “no-contact” features in their apps to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19.
I don’t think switching to delivery is a safe alternative so much as I think it is the lessor of two bad options. Switching from ridehail delivery will shift the risk from the interior of your car to the sanitation of local restaurants and the measures you take to protect yourself while in them. However, I think it is easier to control the surfaces you touch and the distance you keep in a restaurant than while driving 2+ people in your car.
Your Mission: Flatten The Curve
As COVID-19 spreads it is extremely important to do our part in slowing the rate of transmission so our healthcare system will be able to handle the increased demand on hospitals, ICU beds, intubation devices, and healthcare professionals.
South Korea, Singapore, and China have managed to slow the rate of transmission and in some cases reverse it by adopting social distancing measures. Every person you prevent from contracting the disease today may very well lead to 1000 less cases 4 weeks from now.
If You Continue To Drive Through The COVID-19 Pandemic
I realize that many of us will continue to drive. Some of us have no choice financially. Again, I suggest that we stop.
In the spirit of Harm Reduction and risk mitigation, I have put together a guide below on how to mitigate and reduce your risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 if you choose to continue driving for Uber, Lyft, or other ridehail companies.
Bear in mind that doing all of the things below has absolutely no guarantee of preventing you or other people from becoming infected.
The best thing you can do now is to stop driving.
Part I: Protecting Your Car From COVID-19 (and other disease)
Taking the proper measures in your car will help reduce the spread of disease in your vehicle between passengers and yourself. Part I focuses on what to with your car. Part II of this guide focuses on protecting yourself.
Again, the best thing you can do right now is to stop driving altogether.
Disinfect & Clean Your Car As Often As Possible
Our cars have predictable areas that multiple passengers touch almost every single ride. For example, we know that passengers tend to sit on the passenger side of the vehicle and in the rear seat.
Clean Common Touch-points With A Disinfectant
Disinfect all of these areas for every passenger (and driver) seat that you have in your vehicle:
- Door Handles: Make sure to get the outside and inside of each handle and clean the handles on the outside and inside of the car.
- Window Switches: These are often overlooked and they were the dirtiest part of each car from the Netquote study.
- Sides of Seats: This one isn’t so obvious, but a lot of passengers will grab the sides of the seats during their rides or while getting into the car. Make sure to get the sides of YOUR seats too since that part of the car is closest to you.
- Seat Belts & Buckles: This is pretty obvious but you’ll want to make sure to get the straps for the buckles too since some kids (and maybe a few too many adults) chew on seatbelts.
- Headrest: People who are sick have a fever and in my experience this has been one of the dirtiest parts of my car over 10,000 rides.
- Get The Front Seats, Steering Wheel, “oh Sh*t” handle, and Radio Knobs Too!
The best way to do this is while wearing medical gloves. This helps prevent you from touching an infected surface while cleaning and prevents skin and breathing irritation while applying whichever disinfectant you use.
CDC Recommended Disinfectants And Cleaners
Drive With Your Windows Cracked / Opened
I recommend driving with one window cracked at the front passenger side of the vehicle, and one window opened at the rear, driver side of the vehicle. It may be smart to post a sign to alert your passengers that you are doing this to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
According to the CDC:
“The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.
- Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
- Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
Keeping your windows open will help circulate fresh air in and out of your car from the outside. Driving with the windows up and the air recirculating is a bad idea, as you will effectively be locking yourself into a semi-airtight area in close contact with your passengers. If they sneeze, cough, or fart you will inevitably inhale some of it.
Additionally, if you do this the right way (like my uncle used to do when he smoked in the car while driving) you can create a pretty strong cross-current of wind that removes air from your car rather quickly.
How Dirty Is A Typical Ridehail Car?
There haven’t been any rigorous academic studies on the cleanliness of ridehail vehicles. However, a small company-sponsored study conducted by insurance company Netquote took cotton swabs on the common touchpoints of 9 random ridehail vehicles and measured the number of colony-forming unit’s (CFU’s) per square inch. From those nine samples, they found some unsavory details:
- The average ridehail vehicle carried 6 million+ CFU’s compared to 2 million for rental vehicles, and 28,000 for Taxi’s
- Ridehail seatbelts: 1,000,000 CFU’s
- Ridehail window switches: 5,000,000 CFU’s
- Ridehail door handles: 1,600 CFU’s
When compared to taxi cabs and rental cars tested in the small-study, ridehail vehicles ended up being far and away the dirtiest method of for-hire vehicle transportation. Again, the study conducted by Netquote only tested 9 ridehail vehicles; So I don’t consider it an academic study so much as a guide for keeping the dirtiest parts of my car clean.
Part II: Protecting Yourself From COVID-19 As A Ridehail Driver
Getting disposable gloves and a face mask is only part of the battle. Both need to be used properly. Additionally, they should be combined in concert with other proven methods that are proven to reduce the transmission of disease.
I want to be clear here, these things will only reduce your risk of infection.
Wash Your Hands As Often As Possible
We visit a lot of dirty places throughout the day. In addition to our cars, we tend to end up using public restrooms and public spaces often. It is vital that we wash our hands properly and thoroughly whenever we have the opportunity to do so. In addition to washing our hands, I recommend having hand sanitizer available while driving if you can get any.
How to wash your hands properly per CDC:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Sing the Happy Birthday song (it’s 20 seconds).
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
I prefer hot water and tend to wash my hands anytime I stop driving since I usually stop driving to use the restroom. I also make sure to wash them before eating anything when I am driving.
Hand Sanitizer: Should be used in conjunction with washing your hands and not as a replacement.
Do You Smoke? Quit ASAP
COVID-19 may disproportionately effect smokers. I am not a medical professional of any sort, so please forgive me if the following explanation is a little sloppy:
The virus (known as SARS-CoV-2) that causes the disease of COVID-19 enters your body through ACE2 and TMPRRS2 receptor cells/proteins in your lungs. These ACE2 receptor cell/proteins are found to be far more plentiful in those who smoke.
I know it’s hard to quit smoking. It was for me. I recommend getting nicotine gum since it replaces the oral fixation and lasts longer than a cigarette. My grandpa also swore by nicotine lozenges before he passed away. If you do this right, you’ll still be able to get your nicotine fix while reducing damage to your lungs and increasing your health. If this ends up being a nothingburger (it won’t) than perhaps you can come out of it with a victory as an ex-smoker.
Quit smoking. Prolong your life and increase your chances of survival.
Shower & Change Your Clothes Daily
I hope this section is obvious for most readers. However, based on some of the odors I’ve smelled as an ridehail passenger it appears that many drivers have a hygiene problem.
Sitting in our cars for long periods makes it easy to go “nose-blind” to the smell of ourselves. Sitting on the same seat for 6 – 12+ hours at a time results in a smelly car if you don’t change your pants and undergarments. Changing your clothes and keeping good hygiene will also positively affect your ratings, increase your tips and improve morale.
But it’s also important in avoiding the flu or other infectious disease. Showering properly with soap and warm water helps remove germs from your skin that have been collecting on you all day from every cough, fart, an exhale from both you and your passengers. The longer you wear the same pair of clothes, the more these germs will collect on you and the higher chance you will have of getting yourself, a family member, or your passengers sick.
Please wash yourself and change your clothes.
Wear Disposable Gloves
You can wear disposable gloves during your shift to reduce the amount of germs that end up on your hands. Our passengers sit in the back of the car and when they cough, sneeze, or talk loudly they create tiny air droplets which can carry COVID-19 and other forms of disease to the radio buttons, steering wheel, and other high touch surfaces for drivers during their daily shift. Wearing disposable gloves will pay huge dividends if you can manage to not touch your face.
If you use disposable gloves, you will want to make sure that you use them properly by:
- Washing and drying your hands before and after putting on the gloves.
- Check each glove for tears.
- Do not touch your face, ears, mouth, or any other entry/exit point to the interior of your body while driving or wearing the gloves. This defeats the purpose of the gloves.
- Make sure you keep the gloves on while you clean your vehicle during the end of your shift.
- Remove your gloves without touching yourself and dispose of them immediately. The Video below gives good advice for putting-on and removing gloves.
Don’t Touch Your Face
This is really hard. It will take some practice. You’re probably touching your face right now. Stop it.
If you find it difficult, I recommend using any mask or piece of clothing that will cover your mouth and nose. Wearing sunglasses or eyeglasses in combination with a mask may help keep your fingers out of your eyes as well. THIS WILL NOT be an equivalent replacement for wearing an actual N95 mask but it is better than raw-dogging your face with your fingers.
Wear An N95 Mask If You Have One
The government has said that wearing an N95 mask is not an effective measure for the public to stop the spread of COVID-19. I generally agree that this is true for most of the public. However, I think ridehail drivers are in a unique circumstance.
Since we are sitting in a close contact box within six feet of our passengers for extended periods of time and the disease spreads through large air droplets I think wearing a mask is a good idea. Additionally, if we get infected and continue to drive while experience asymptomatic or mild symptoms than we will spread the disease much worse than the average person to our passengers, who also sit within six feet of us in a box for extended periods of time.
It may be difficult to get an N95 mask this late in the game, and it’s important to remember that our healthcare professionals will be needing them much more than us. Hopefully we can get mask production up in the coming weeks to slow the spread of this thing. If you already have masks it is smart to begin using them.
Should You Erect A Plastic Bubble In Your Car?
There are some videos and images circulating showing drivers who have erected plastic barriers in their vehicles. Some of these appear to be for shock value to get clicks.
I honestly have no idea if this is an effective measure, but I do know that it will make it EXTREMELY difficult to use your rirrorview mirror effectively.
That can lead to more serious health problems if you get into an accident.
If You Get Sick: Stop Driving, Self Isolate, And Seek Medical Attention
It is absolutely important that if you start to show any symptoms of COVID-19 that you cease driving immediately and get tested. During this time it will best for everyone that you stay home. Uber and Lyft have announced plans to assist those diagnosed with COVID-19, or who become quarantined after coming into contact with a case. Reach out to them immediately.
Additionally, you may be able to apply for state, local, or federal assistance as the response to this disease intensifies from the government. I will keep an eye out for programs that help gig-workers like us and follow up with additional posts on how to utilize them.