Shortly after 11 a.m. in Dunn Meadow on Indiana University’s campus, a demonstration tipped off in support of those experiencing homelessness in Bloomington.
Somewhere between 70 and 90 people were a part of the action at various points during the late morning and early afternoon, which would up at the intersection of 17th Street and Woodlawn Avenue, kitty-corner from Indiana University’s Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
That’s where demonstrators set up 17 blue free-standing tents.
At Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Bloomington Transit (BT) board, the continuation of COVID-19 protocols, including fare-free, rear-door boarding for all bus passengers, was confirmed for another month.
It could be the last time the board votes to approve the protocols, without a date for resumption of regular service.
About 70 percent of BT’s normal, non-pandemic ridership comes from IU affiliates—students, staff and faculty. They don’t pay a fare when they board, because their rides are covered under an agreement between IU and BT.
The BT board’s next monthly meeting, in April, will include an agenda item to consider the formal question of resuming fare collection, effective as early as June 1.
The board’s decision not to collect fares—made early in the pandemic—was based on the goal of limiting the opportunity for driver-passenger COVID-19 disease spread, by allowing passengers to board through the bus rear doors. Fare boxes are located next to the driver’s seat at the front door of the buses.
On Tuesday, BT general manager Lew May reported to the board that the drivers union recommends resumption of fare collection as soon as possible.
About the union’s recommendation, May said, “They have noticed over the past year, a marked increase in the homeless population that has been using the bus as a place of refuge. And, and in some cases, they have caused some difficulty for us.”
How will the resumption of public bus fare collection affect the population of people who are experiencing homelessness, and organizations who serve them?
According to Beacon, Inc. executive director Forrest Gilmore, during non-pandemic times, the nonprofit spends about $500 a month on 50-percent discounted bus fares for its clients. That translates into 1,000 rides a month. That’s an expense that Beacon, Inc. has been able to save during the pandemic.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the one-year mark, it’s been an occasion to mark milestones. At Friday’s weekly press conference of Bloomington area leaders, Indiana University’s director of media relations, Chuck Carney, added one of the achievements.
“We’ve collected 193.1 gallons of spit for our mitigation tests,” Carney said.
The sheer volume of saliva, which pencils out to about one hot tub, or 12 kegs full of spit, was not as important as the current positivity rate, which is just around 0.2 percent.
Numbers of deaths across the state have hit a 7-day rolling average of around 7, the lowest levels since the end of March last year, in the early stages of the pandemic.
The rolling daily average of hospitalizations is around 635, which is about as low as the early July dip, after hitting a high of more than 3,200 a day.
In the state of Indiana and Monroe County, the COVID-19 pandemic numbers continue to slide down the other side of the peaks that were climbed starting in mid- to late-October of 2020.
The most recent rolling 7-day daily averages for Indiana deaths (19), hospitalizations (1,274), confirmed positive cases(1,621) are the lowest the state has seen since mid-October. The same is true for confirmed positive cases in Monroe County (31).
Dispensing every drop of vaccine that they are allocated has become the main focus for local health officials. That’s the basic picture that emerged from Friday’s weekly news conference held by local officials on pandemic response.
Right now the main barrier to vaccinating more people is the amount of vaccine available. IU Health is currently allocated about 4,000 doses a week, and Monroe County’s clinic is getting around 800 doses a week. The current pace of full vaccinations—two doses are required—would put Monroe County at the 70-percent herd-immunity threshold around mid-November.
According to the NYT report, the discovery in December that a sixth dose could be extracted from the 5-dose vials will now lead to less vaccine shipped by Pfizer.
According to the report: “Pfizer plans to count the surprise sixth dose toward its previous commitment of 200 million doses of Covid vaccine by the end of July and therefore will be providing fewer vials than once expected for the United States.”
The main barrier to COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Monroe County, as well as other parts of the state and country, continues to be the availability of the vaccine.
As many 1,000 additional doses of vaccine a day could be distributed by Indiana University, according to IU’s assistant vice president for strategic partnerships Kirk White. He was speaking at Friday’s weekly news conference of local leaders on COVID-19 response.
Whenever the state is able to allocate vaccine to the university as a distribution site, White said, “I’m pretty comfortable that we could do between 500 and 1000 vaccinations that day, if we had the supply.”
For now, the only vaccination clinics in the county are being operated by IU Health and Monroe County’s health department. The vaccine is free, but appointments are required for both clinics. For now it’s only frontline healthcare workers and those over 70 years old who are eligible.
At its Tuesday meeting, Bloomington’s seven-member utilities service board (USB) voted unanimously, with one abstention, to recommend a proposal to the city council that water rates be increased starting in 2022.
Abstaining was USB member Jason Banach. He’s a former city councilmember who represented District 2 from 1996 to 2005.
Before the USB took up the item, Banach announced that his employer is Bloomington’s largest water customer, adding, “It’s out of an abundance of caution that I’ll be recusing myself from this discussion and abstaining from the vote.” Banach works for Indiana University as the university’s director of real estate.
It is the university that is likely to be the strongest opponent of the water rate increase.
The proposed water rate increase would come in two phases, in 2022 and 2024, with residential customers paying a total of 22 percent more over the course of four years. Customers would see higher bills starting in early 2022.
After the two phases are implemented, Indiana University, which is a separate class of customer, would pay 39.7 percent more than it does now. IU also pays for water as an irrigation customer, and all irrigation customers would see a 43.9 percent increase over the two phases.
At Tuesday’s USB meeting, Indiana University assistant vice president for utilities Keith Thompson told the board: “IU is not happy with a 40-percent rate increase, even though it’s coming in two phases.” Thompson added, “This is a rate shock to Indiana University.”
The higher increases for IU and for irrigation customers is based on a cost of service study, done by a city of Bloomington utilities (CBU) consultant, which says that residential customers have been subsidizing other classes of customers.