Josh Farrell started operating buses for Duluth Transit Authority months before COVID-19 prompted shutdowns across Minnesota.

The Superior man is among the many Northland cashiers, medical staff, food producers and more who suited up and showed up as we all clung to the ever-changing news of the coronavirus.

He realized the work is “a lifeline” for folks who need to get to the grocery store for food or the pharmacy for medicine, Farrell said.

Last spring, “No one had any information for us other than we shouldn’t go outside, and we should stay away from people. Being a driver, both things are impossible,” he recalled.

He reflected on the changes that helped him feel safer operating Duluth’s buses — the implementation of face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and touchless ways for passengers to pay.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

A passenger boards Josh Farrell’s bus at the Duluth Transportation Center on Sunday, July 18, 2021. Farrell said he realized the work is “a lifeline” for folks who need to get to the grocery store for food or the pharmacy for medicine. 

 (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A passenger boards Josh Farrell’s bus at the Duluth Transportation Center on Sunday, July 18, 2021. Farrell said he realized the work is “a lifeline” for folks who need to get to the grocery store for food or the pharmacy for medicine. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

DTA also started filling the buses at half capacity, and they hired professional cleaners and added plexiglass barriers to help eliminate contact.

They were as completely as covered as they could be, Farrell said.

“At a point, you do feel more comfortable, and I guess it also makes you feel better than at least you’re trying to do something to help eliminate contact,” he added.

He also recalled the nervous gratitude of being able to continue working.

He and his wife have four grade-school children; his wife was attending college full-time and interning full-time. At one point, everyone, including his wife, was attending school online at home.

“Our schedules were already running tight. … We’d high-five each other and head to work and do my shift, and she’d be the one watching the kids and vice versa.

Luckily, Farrell was able to have an aunt stay with the family to help with the kids.

“That was the roughest part,” he said.

The DTA still requires drivers and passengers to wear masks onboard its buses, and provides masks to those who don’t have them. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
The DTA still requires drivers and passengers to wear masks onboard its buses, and provides masks to those who don’t have them. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Asked about face masks on the bus, Farrell shared: “Not everyone feels the same way about what’s going on as others. We do ask that everyone wears one; we do say it’s required for you to have one, which is why we provide them.”

“There’s always the one person who (thinks) ‘This is a scam, this isn’t real.’ To avoid that conflict, we just say ‘Alright, ma’am.’ ‘OK, sir. Try to be mindful and wear a mask next time.’”

It’s the same procedure for folks short on bus fare.

We’re not fare enforcers. We’re fare advisers, Farrell said.

Instead of arguing or making somebody feel embarrassed, they’re in the habit of saying “try to have that next time.”

Farrell took time to answer questions about driving in Duluth winters, his self-care during that past year-plus and ways in which we can support frontline workers.

MORE ESSENTIAL WORKER STORIES:

DTA bus driver Josh Farrell on Sunday, July 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
DTA bus driver Josh Farrell on Sunday, July 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Q: What’s the trick for operating a bus in Duluth during our various weather stages?

A: Taking your time doesn't seem like a trick, but it’s the best possible way to handle buses in our weather — that and great snow tires for winter.

Q: You and your wife have grade-school age children. What was your sanitization practice on your return home after a shift, and did you at any point have to quarantine away from your family?

A: On my way home, I would wash my hands and follow up with hand sanitizer. Once I got home, I would take my uniform off at the door, shower and change into different clothes.

I was fortunate to never have to quarantine away from my family.

DTA driver Josh Farrell drives his route between downtown Duluth and Proctor on Sunday, July 18, 2021. "One of my takeaways from being on the front lines was realizing how many people would have had barriers to accessing their needs if essential workers weren't available. I also think that our community and society as a whole are very appreciative of front line workers," he said by email.

(Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
DTA driver Josh Farrell drives his route between downtown Duluth and Proctor on Sunday, July 18, 2021. "One of my takeaways from being on the front lines was realizing how many people would have had barriers to accessing their needs if essential workers weren't available. I also think that our community and society as a whole are very appreciative of front line workers," he said by email. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Q: Name some of your takeaways from working on the front lines.

A: One was realizing how many people would have had barriers to accessing their needs if essential workers weren't available. I also think that our community and society as a whole are very appreciative of front-line workers.

Q: Name a stand-out positive interaction at work during the past year. How did a moment like that impact you on the job?

I have had the opportunity to build relationships with people in the community who often use public transportation.

Sometimes, people are dealing with some difficult situations, and being able to just lend them an ear and possibly provide some advice makes the world of difference.

The best part is when I see them again. I'm able to hear the positive milestones in their lives. I get to share my genuine excitement with them and see that these small, brief interactions go a long way.

Q: What does it mean to you to be an essential worker?

A: Means being selfless.

A flier concerning COVID-19 hangs on a window of Josh Farrell’s bus Sunday, July 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A flier concerning COVID-19 hangs on a window of Josh Farrell’s bus Sunday, July 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Q: In what ways do you practice self-care, and did that change during the shutdown?

A: My main self-care prior to the shutdown was working out at the gym. My routine completely changed during the shutdown, as we were not able to go to the gym, but I was able to adapt and start a new routine working out at home.

Q: As changes are occurring due to the delta variant, what tips do you have for other essential workers?

A: Practice self-care and continue following safety precautions. We need to feel like the best versions of ourselves to avoid burnout. We have to take care of ourselves and families first, so we are in top shape to continue doing our best in our professional roles.

Q: How can we support our front-line heroes?

A: Many businesses need community members to continue being safe and healthy and reduce the risk of COVID transmission. Many places are also very short-staffed. I think we can help support front-line workers by applying for positions, even if it is part-time or on-call.

* * *

Essential worker series

Know an essential worker with a story to share? Email Melinda Lavine at mlavine@duluthnews.com or call 218-723-5346.