PENN YAN — Scott Reston was watching a Rochester TV station during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States when a story hit close to home.

Reston, president of sales at longtime Penn Yan bus manufacturer Coach & Equipment, was watching a segment on how transit officials were trying to keep drivers safe on large buses.

“They had yellow tape from floor to ceiling, passengers could not go in the front door, they had to go in the side door,” Reston recalled. “They were putting passengers in the rear of the bus, which they didn’t like, but it was for the driver’s peace of mind. I thought to myself, ‘There has to be a better way.’”

So the next morning Reston talked to Karen Long, Coach’s chief financial officer.

“Large transit buses in urban areas have Plexiglas to protect drivers from violence. I thought we could do something like that for smaller buses, not for violence but for COVID,” he said. “That way passengers could spread out all over the bus, not just sit in the back. Our buses are much smaller, so spreading out is more difficult.”

While most of Coach’s manufacturing employees were furloughed, the sales department was still considered essential by the state.

“I went out to the guys on the shop floor, we came up with a design, and I started talking to some clients” he said. “It progressed from there.”

The result was a new product, a driver protective barrier. It protects both the driver and passengers from COVID and other transmittable pathogens, and is consistent with the latest recommendations for mass transit by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now that all of Coach’s 150 or so manufacturing employees are back to building buses, the company is installing the barrier on all new buses and also shipping them for installation on older ones. One of Coach’s major clients is the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority.

“The health and safety of the people driving and riding our buses has always been a top priority at Coach & Equipment,” said Jim McMullen, company CEO. “The threat of this virus has prompted us to not only act quickly, but to be even more innovative when developing ways to take mass transit safety to a new level.”

The barrier, which Coach began producing in late April/early May, is a hinged door made of a high-end durable polycarbonate called Lexan. It encloses the driver in the cab and prevents the spread of pathogens, and is also a secondary escape route in case of accident.

The barrier is secured at the top and bottom.

“As a small-town company, we’re proud to be working with NYC MTA, New Jersey Transit, and Massachusetts DOT — some of the largest transit organizations on the East Coast — to provide solutions that will help their operation and keep people safe during these uncertain times,” Reston said.

The barrier is eligible for grant funding through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, commonly known as CARES, which includes $25 billion for the transit sector for expenses related to COVID-19.

Reston said Coach has produced about 150 of them to date, and has about 10 prototypes the company is working on depending on the client. Coach is working with the New York City MTA on a purchase order for 850 more.

“A lot had to do with understanding where we are with the pandemic, and today we have a much better understanding, although there are still a lot of unknowns,” he said. “I think we will be producing many of them this year, and maybe many more the next year or two. This may be a long-term need, it may not.”

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