He remembers it clearly — the look in the eyes of one of his employees sitting behind the wheel getting ready to pull the bus out of the terminal at 6:45 a.m. one day in mid-March.
"I'm standing there and you see the fear, you see the anxiety," said Mike Cassidy, the owner of T3 Transit.
"I did not know: If I sent that bus out, was I putting the employee in harm's way? Because I did not know COVID-19, the coronavirus. Nobody really knew."
Prince Edward Island announced its first case of COVID-19 on March 14, diagnosed in a person who had recently travelled to the Island. Schools shut down, sports stopped mid-season and even international borders closed.
But T3 Transit kept on rolling along.
"Deep down, public transportation is not a want. It's a need," said Cassidy.
"If you're on my bus in a pandemic lockdown, there's gotta be a reason. You do not have a vehicle … you have no access to transportation. So what would you do if there was no bus?"
For the first two weeks after the initial provincial shutdown, Cassidy said he rode the transit system along with his drivers. He said he wanted a better understanding of why he was keeping the buses running and a clearer picture of who was on them.
You've been working all your life, and things that you've worked for — it just evaporates. — Mike Cassidy, T3 Transit
He recalled a woman and her daughter with grocery bags in hand, waiting at the Walmart bus shelter: "And the mother gets off and she says, 'Thank you so much for running the buses.'"
A young girl on her way home from work: "She said, 'I'm one of the lucky ones, I didn't get laid off.'"
And university-aged men who had spent the night stocking the store shelves so that Islanders would have access to products the following morning: "They were so appreciative at 7:15 in the morning that they could go to the bus and we could take them home to bed."
But make no mistake, the buses were relatively empty.
"There was one saving factor," said Cassidy.
"How do you practice social distancing? Well, there weren't a lot of people on the buses, so they could just automatically spread out in those early days."
Bubble helped for a while
In the beginning, Cassidy said, his ridership plummeted 80 per cent.
But then the Atlantic bubble was formed on July 3, giving people the ability to once again travel among Canada's four easternmost provinces without needing to self-isolate.
"Ridership came back to 50 per cent," he said. "That was a big accomplishment."
Now, with the provincial border closed once again, Cassidy said ridership has again dropped — but only by an additional 10 per cent.
"Everything can be taken away from you [with] a moment's notice," he said. "That's hard to take when you're 67 years of age and you've been working all your life and things that you've worked for — it just evaporates."
In addition to T3 Transit, Cassidy also operates Coach Atlantic and Maritime Bus.
He estimates that the pandemic cost him $33 million in revenue for 2020. And he anticipates that in 2021, he will lose about $20 million in gross revenue.
At its peak in 2019, the company had 550 employees. Cassidy said that because of COVID-19, he wasn't able to bring back more than 400 of them this year.
"The pandemic just destroyed the company," he said. "Now we have to build it back up."
Passing the torch
There have been some silver linings, though. For one, Cassidy said the past several months have taught him to acknowledge what's important.
And second, he said it has shown him that when the business finally gets passed on to his children, it will be in excellent hands.
"My sons are placing the building blocks," he said.
"It's no longer Mom and Dad's. It's going to be their company and COVID-19 made it easy for me to say: 'You're ready to take over what Mom and Dad tried to build.'"
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