Amid coronavirus outbreak, Metra conductor keeps calm and rides on
He stands 6 feet away from the engineer, dons a mask to interact with riders, and meticulously changes out of his work clothes, then showers, before hugging his kids.
Metra conductor Demetrios Vatistas admits boarding a train and mingling with passengers under the cloud of COVID-19 causes him some anxiety.
Yet along with nurses, grocery store clerks, police and other essential workers, Vatistas compartmentalizes his fears and does his job -- one of thousands who keep the state running.
Typically, he's on his toes during the morning rush between Fox Lake and Chicago's Union Station on the Milwaukee North Line.
Now, the railcars normally packed with commuters juggling coffee, briefcases and tablets are ghost trains.
"I've been doing this for 24 years, and I've never seen anything like this," Vatistas said.
Metra ridership toppled by about 97% since Gov. J.B. Pritzker's stay-at-home order went live March 21.
"It's very slow, and a little bit depressing to see what we're going through as a country," Vatistas said. "But the very few passengers we do have are very appreciative of the train service."
The Metra veteran remembers the unease following 9/11 and how the trains filled again.
But "9/11 was a different feeling," Vatistas said. "We were not going to let fear stop us going back to normal."
Now, being cautious is prudent as the respiratory disease has claimed 1,290 lives in Illinois with 30,357 reported cases as of Sunday.
As always, conductors and engineers hold a briefing every morning on everything from track construction to switches.
But instead of the typical camaraderie, it's "get in, get your paperwork and get out. We try to stay 6 feet apart but if you have to get closer, then you put the mask on," Vatistas said.
"It is extremely weird. We're so used to working hand-in-hand, side-by-side. This is our family away from home."
Responsibilities like throwing switches or checking the train's air brakes haven't changed. But dealing with passengers is another disconnect from normalcy.
Most riders are using the Ventra app to pay fares, so Vatistas can check their smartphone screens from a safe distance. He's equipped with gloves for passengers using paper tickets or paying in cash, but those are few and far between.
A new duty is politely herding commuters to empty cars to increase social distancing space.
Vatistas and the passengers are masked, but the eyes of the regulars offer affirmation for what overnight became a risky job.
"When they see their regular conductor ... they're reassured," he said.
Vatistas comes from a Greek-American family involved in the restaurant business. He loved interacting with customers and gets that same buzz while whizzing through the suburbs on a Metra train.
"When I walk down the aisle, I get to see everyone on the same playing field ... nurses, construction workers, lawyers, businessmen. We share the same experience."
After work, to reduce the chance he brings home the virus to his family in Lake Villa, Vatistas removes and sprays disinfectant on his uniform in the garage, puts on clothes waiting in a hamper, has a shower and puts the clothes into the washer.
"Anyone with children knows that if one of them gets something -- everyone does," he said.
Vatistas isn't seeing his extended family in person much these days, but every Sunday he meets his mother at a local cemetery. They stand 8 to 10 feet apart and light a candle for his father.
"This brings us closer together," Vatistas said.
Meanwhile, his new Metra family is growing.
In early March, before state-issued mandates about social distancing emerged, a passenger who is a nurse handed Vatistas several face masks. "That to me was an act of kindness ... it wasn't even a commuter that I knew."
Rider disputes are nonexistent and now passengers tip him off if someone's running from the parking lot to catch the train.
"I see concern" about COVID-19, Vatistas said, "but I also see compassion."
Do you know an essential transportation worker? Drop an email to email@example.com.
Sorry, Libertyville. IDOT crews will be resurfacing Route 176 between Crescent Knoll Drive and Route 41. Work starts Monday and lasts until September.
One less thing to worry about
Car won't start? Got a flat? AAA will come and fix it for free if you're a health care worker or first responder throughout April. Services include tows, fuel, and jump-starts. Eligible essential workers can call (833) 222-3284 for free roadside assistance 24/7.