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Potential Changes To Emergency Cab Rules

A Kusko Cab waits for customers outside of the AC Store in Bethel, Alaska on April 1, 2020.
Katie Basile

The emergency coronavirus rules for Bethel’s taxicabs are set to end in a week, and the Bethel City Manager plans to present his proposal for the next 30 days of cab operations at the city council meeting on April 28.

The emergency measures were put into place when cab companies discontinued service because drivers were concerned they might get sick transporting people during the pandemic.

Naim Shabani, who owns Kusko Cab, pointed out that most of Bethel’s cabbies are over 50, and at greater risk from the virus than the general population. Before the ordinance was put in place, most cabs had shut down because of concerns over the difficulties of maintaining social-distancing in a taxi.

“You sit right next to someone, you’re 2 feet away, in some cases you’re rubbing elbows with somebody. So the real question here is: after April 30, are we concerned about social distancing or not? If we do feel that social distancing will continue to be a concern of ours, then perhaps we can look at where the future of taxi guidelines goes.”

The rules put in the original emergency order did away with shared rides in taxis, and put the cost of a ride at $5 dollars plus $1 per minute for use of the cab, regardless of whether it is for one person or the whole back seat-load of people. No one is allowed to sit up front, and some cabs took the initiative to install plexiglas shields to separate the driver and passengers. Practices put in place also call for drivers to wear masks, and for riders to do the same. Between rides, cabbies wipe down commonly used surfaces with sanitizers.

On April 24, City Manager Vincenzo “Vinny” Corazza held a virtual town meeting on KYUK to discuss whether the emergency rules for taxis should continue, be changed, or go back the way they were. Only a few calls and emails came in during the hour-long meeting. Some proposed various fare options, and others suggested installing meters in cabs.

A lot depends on the continued threat posed by the pandemic. Corazza told listeners that he planned to present a proposal for cab fares and operations during the remainder of the emergency ordinance to the city council on April 28. 

“Sometime [on April 27], we will collect all the emails that we have and discuss it with the industry, come up with a plan, and then we going to announce it to the council what we’d like to do,” said Corazza.

According to city staff, the measure does not require the normal committee process and council approval because it is being managed under the emergency order, which remains in effect until May 23.

Asked whether it would be too late to influence the outcome if people weighed in with their concerns during the council meeting on April 28, Bill Howell, who had worked with taxi companies to get the measure in place while Acting City Manager, assured listeners that it would not be too late because the city manager and the rest of the city’s team may be working as late as April 29 to nail down the details.

“I think that this decision will be, you know, close to the wire. We definitely want the council to give us their thoughts on this. So maybe early [April 29] or something like that,” said Howell.

Bus service in Bethel has been suspended, and cabs and private vehicles remain the only transport in town other than walking or bicycling.