Metro Transit bus riders can once again board through the front door and pay at the fare box starting Aug. 1.

Since March, the transit agency had allowed riders to get on and off the bus through the back door only and had suspended onboard payments to limit face-to-face interaction between drivers and passengers due to the onset of COVID-19.

But Metro Transit technicians have now installed plastic shields similar to those at store checkouts to put a barrier between drivers and riders who pass each other at the front of the bus.

"This is a continuation [of efforts] to make things safer," spokesman Howie Padilla said.

Two suburban transit agencies, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority and Plymouth Metrolink, also will resume front-door boarding and collecting fares onboard Aug. 1. SouthWest Transit previously installed barriers and continued to collect fares. Maple Grove Transit said it was still reviewing its policies.

Many pandemic precautions remain in place, including limits on the number of bus riders to allow for social distancing.

Metro Transit continues to encourage riders to pay fares before getting on the bus by using its mobile app or swiping Go-To cards at stations where there are card readers. The agency also asks riders to follow Gov. Tim Walz's statewide mandate to wear masks in public places to slow the spread of the coronavirus. That mask order includes on buses and trains.

"We still expect riders to abide by protocols," Padilla said.

Bus ridership is down 50% since March, when Metro Transit advised passengers to take the bus for essential trips only.

While the agency continues to operate at a reduced schedule, Padilla encouraged those who need to get around to use other transportation if possible. People who need to take the bus should use the front door to board and the back door to exit "to keep people from crossing in aisles," he said.

The clear plastic shields between drivers and riders are being installed on more than 900 buses. Technicians in Metro Transit's Body Shop made them using recycled bus parts.

They are a welcome addition, said Ryan Timlin, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, the union representing bus drivers and train operators.

"The barriers will help, but the big thing is people need to wear masks," he said. "It really helps when passengers wear masks."

About 50 to 60 drivers have contracted COVID-19, but none have had life-threatening cases, he said.

"We have been lucky so far, but this could happen to our members," Timlin said. "Still, lots of drivers are concerned. I hope the public understands. It really helps when they wear masks."