Intercity bus companies want state support to keep passenger levels low

Intercity bus companies are requesting state support so they can run services with fewer passengers to limit the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Minister of Economic Affairs Taavi Aas does not support the idea and believes passengers should wear face masks when traveling.

The emergency situation resulting from COVID-19 has reduced intercity bus traffic by about 90 percent but passengers have not disappeared completely and in the last few weeks there has been a slight increase in customers, ETV's "Aktuaalne kaamera" reported on Saturday.

Lux Express drivers are cleaning their buses after each trip but, in the interests of safety, the company is running buses that do not exceed 50 percent capacity. Passengers are being seated far apart.

But one of the biggest questions is what will happen when the emergency restrictions are eased next month.

Janno Ritsberg, CEO of Lux Express, told AK: "When Denmark started to relax its measures, intercity buses were full during the first weekend after, which forced the Danish Ministry of Transport to intervene."

He said a profitable business means buses should be at least 67 percent full. But this means passengers would have to be seated next to each other rather than separately, exceeding the 50 percent capacity limit.

Ritsberg believes if buses should only be running at half their capacity then the state needs to support businesses. For Lux Express, this would be approximately €300,000 euros per month.

Andrei Mändla, the head of AS GoBus said: "It is clear that it is not economically viable to run bus services like this, that the bus would be half empty. /.../ The state could come to the rescue of commercial carriers during the recovery period."

On county buses, extra services have been launched to stop passengers crowding onto buses. Tallinn's buses are running on their usual schedule with the aim of not exceeding 40 percent occupancy, and Ida-Viru County's bus services have been increased during the emergency situation. But these costs are being covered by the state or city.

Minister of Economic Affairs Taavi Aas (Center) said that there are still similar requests coming in from county bus lines but that ultimately: "The only solution here is to use masks."

He said the use of masks is also more practical on intercity routes which are funded by customers rather than county lines which are state-funded.

"We can't imagine that if a bus service used to run between Tallinn and Tartu practically every half hour, then we can now make the buses run every quarter of an hour and half of them would be paid for by the state. This is not really a solution to the situation," Aas said.

If this is the case, representatives of the bus companies said experts need to clearly tell the public masks need to be worn. Ritsberg said it also comes down to whether passengers are prepared to wear masks.

Currently, the debate in Estonia around wearing masks is currently mixed, with experts disagreeing. Members of the government are wearing masks at daily press conferences and Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) has said it is advisable - but wearing a mask in public is not mandatory.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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