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DIGGING DEEPER: Pandemic sparks concerns over e-scooters

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TUCSON (KVOA) - Before the pandemic hit, e-scooters were virtually everywhere on streets and sidewalks near the University of Arizona, Fourth Avenue, and in downtown Tucson.

Then, many of them disappeared, almost overnight.

Well, they are now back again, and there is new and growing concern they could be helping spread the coronavirus.

E-scooters have been promoted as a quick, affordable, and convenient way to get around. Just pick one up, take a ride, and drop it off when you’re done.

But, what about the person who rode it before you? How can you be sure you are not being exposed to whatever they may be carrying?

Even though they are not allowed on campus, in the area surrounding the University of Arizona, e-scooters are everywhere, and many of the riders, are students.

That’s one of the big reasons for concern.

“The student population is a significant carrier of Covid right now,” said Ward 6 City Councilman, Steve Kozachik.

Those potentially infected students who ride scooter-sharing services like Razor or Bird might unknowingly be spreading the coronavirus beyond campus.

“When those students get on these scooters, and end their ride nine minutes later, they have potentially left traces of Covid on the scooter itself for the next rider to get on and pick up themselves,” Kozachik told News 4 Tucson.

The Tucson City Council approved a pilot program for e-scooters in September, 2019.

When the pandemic hit, one of the two scooter companies, Bird, temporarily suspended service.  

But, now they're back, even as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.    

Bird did not respond to our request for information about what they are doing to make sure scooters are coronavirus-free. But, according to their website, the company is increasing the frequency of scooter cleanings.

Another e-scooter company, Razor, is also part of the city's pilot program.

So, what are they doing to stop the potential spread of the coronavirus?

A representative from Razor told us in part:

"In March 2020, razor introduced a set of industry-leading sanitation protocols in response to the covid-19 pandemic, to ensure that we continue to serve our employees and customers safely and responsibly. In practice, this means that most of our scooters are sanitized daily. These protocols were implemented across all our shared scooter markets, and will remain in place for the foreseeable future."

But, councilmember Kozachik isn't convinced.

“There’s no way that Razor can go out and sanitize these vehicles between each ride,” Kozachik said.

That's part of the reason why it's up to riders to take their own precautions.

The City of Tucson recommends riders disinfect the handlebars on a scooter before and after a ride. They also say you should wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before and after a ride, and should consider wearing gloves while riding.

Just last month, the city decided to extend the e-scooter pilot program, so they can continue to study the benefits, as well as any potential problems.  

For his part, councilmember Kozachik says he has seen enough.

“If this council is serious about community spread and Covid, then they ought to be putting a pause on this program until we have our arms around Covid.” Kozachik told News 4 Tucson.

It's not just Bird and Razor.

The Tucson bike-share program, TuGo, also tells News 4 Tucson they have increased the number of cleanings their bikes undergo. And this month, TuGo rides actually are free.

Paul Birmingham

Paul Birmingham is an Investigative Producer for KVOA News 4 Tucson. He is a three time Edward R. Murrow award winner, native Tucsonan, and a proud Arizona Wildcat.

Alexis Berdine

Alexis Berdine is an Investigative Multi-Media Journalist at KVOA.

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