Great Falls’ Paratransit, a transportation service for people with disabilities, recently shut down for two months. It was the only city of its size in Montana to take that step after the arrival of the novel coronavirus.
Now, Paratransit is now back up and running.
When the Great Falls service shut down, Sheila Leigland had to find other ways of getting around. She explored her options, including asking for rides through church or using paid services like Uber and Lyft. But sometimes those weren't available or affordable, and Leigland says she wasn’t alone.
“And we have friends that don’t have computers or anything, so they were really stuck,” she said.
Leigland and her husband have relied on the city’s public transposition to get around for more than 30 years. Other cities like Helena and Missoula continued running Paratransit while the service in Great Falls was shut down.
Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly said he didn’t expect the transit board to shut down Paratransit. The city offered to provide proper personal protective equipment like masks for drivers, he said.
“Recognizing the tumultuous consequences of the people who were stranded, we offered to go as any length we possibly could with city resources, county resources,” Kelly said.
Jim Helgeson, general manager of Great Falls Transit District, explained that the difficult decision was made out of concern that a driver could potentially pass COVID-19 on to immuno-compromised passengers.
“You know, everybody’s trying to figure this out,” he said. “Being responsible for those people that use our system, we just felt it was safe and prudent … And there again, you hope you make the best decision.”
Paratransit in Great Falls has been back up and running for about a month, averaging 150 rides a day while also requiring everyone to wear a mask and buses to be cleaned daily.
And as for planning for future spikes of COVID-19 in Montana and how Great Falls Paratransit will respond?
“We know there are different opinions on what’s going on, and we’re sticking with the CDC and the governor’s control over that,” Helgeson said.
A Great Falls Transit Board meeting will be held Wednesday June 24 and will include time for public comment.