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Scooting Around A Pandemic; Ride-Sharing Resumes Despite Coronavirus Concerns

Electric scooters started appearing on St. Louis streets in summer 2018. (May 28, 2020)
Shula Neuman | St. Louis Public Radio
Electric scooters started appearing on St. Louis streets in summer 2018.

Ride-sharing scooters have returned to St. Louis streets during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Companies operating the motorized transportation devices in the city are resuming operations after pulling the vehicles off the streets in the early days of the outbreak. 

The move to take scooters out of service was voluntary. Both the city’s and county’s emergency orders defined the scooters as essential. But the resumption is raising questions about how easily the coronavirus could be transmitted by sharing the vehicles.

The city says there are "no particular concerns" beyond the obvious — the touching of handlebars and brakes.

In an email, St. Louis Transportation Policy Planner Scott Ogilvie said each scooter averages roughly two rides a day, so the individual contact on each could be less than many would anticipate.

"The touches on these shared surfaces are far lower than things like door handles, credit card payment machines, chair arms, counters, and so on," he wrote.

A Bird scooter in Forest Park. August 23, 2019.
Credit Kae Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
The motorized vehicles have been popular in several green spaces in the area, like this scooter in Forest Park.

The city is also supporting the companies' guidelines calling on people to wash their hands before and after riding the scooters to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Bird is one of the companies licensed for scooter services in St. Louis. 

The company did not make anyone available for an interview, but its approach to the pandemic was posted on the company's websitein March. Bird vowed to increase the frequency of cleaning and sanitizing scooters and helmets while providing extra gloves, hand sanitizer, masks and other protection for workers.

The company also said it is closely following actions taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

At least one medical expert is not too concerned about the safety of the vehicles during the outbreak.

"I would feel comfortable using them," said Andrew Janowski, an infectious disease physician at Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children's Hospital.

He added people should still pay attention to common sense guidelines in place to battle COVID-19 like washing hands before and after a ride.

Andrew Janowski started in at the Washington University School of Medicine in 2013. (May 28, 2020)
Credit Washington University School of Medicine
Dr. Andrew Janowski said he'd be fine with using one of the scooters.

"Or if you want to wipe down the scooters with a wipe, that would be appropriate."

Janowski also said the overall risk of catching the virus from one of the scooters is low because of their environment.

"Because many of these scooters are left outside, they are exposed to sunlight and therefore U-V light, which will help to deactivate the number of viruses," he said.

Janowski added more study needs to be done on the ability of U-V light to disinfect surfaces. 

"We do know that U-V light does help. But it's just a question to what extent and how long we need to treat items for."

Bird's deal with the city allows it to put 2,000 scooters on the streets of St. Louis, but officials say it has not come close to that number this year. 

Another company, Spin, is also operating below its allotment. The city says it resumed operations a few weeks ago, along with Bird. 

Lime is expected to follow this week.

Follow Wayne on Twitter: @WayneRadio

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Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.