By Heather Douglas
The term ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ certainly hit home for Autocar Preference on March 20, 2020 when two of their tour buses were spotted in the parking lot of Huntsville’s Canadian Tire store.
Facebook was soon flooded with posts and comments that ranged from questioning the audacity of the bus company to calls of charging them with murder.
“They are putting their greedy money ahead of people’s lives. In Huntsville, we have no cases of the virus….so you bring bus loads of people to infect us and deplete our stores that are spare enough for the people who live here and pay taxes here. Take your bus loads to Toronto,” read one review posted to the company’s Facebook page.
“Bringing bus loads of people to another town to raid their stores is completely irresponsible! Shut down! Stop skirting the law! Hand over your manifest to the OPP to allow them to reinforce social distancing. Be accountable to your actions,” read another.
Since the uproar, the director of operations for Autocar, Justin Ryan, has been trying to explain what the buses were doing and why they were in Huntsville. Explanations that have fallen on a lot of deaf ears and added to more confusion and anger.
Autocar Preference has been in business for almost 100 years and was one of the first operators in Québec to receive a permit, said Ryan. With a head office located in Terrebonne, Québec, they are permitted to operate in New Brunswick, Québec and Ontario, with almost 100 per cent of their business out of Québec or Ontario.
“We operate a charter bus service providing transportation for tour groups, sports teams, conventions, weddings, educational tours, ski trips, corporate getaways and shuttle services,” Ryan said.
With over 50-plus full- and part-time employees, the COVID-19 pandemic that is wreaking havoc on the world has also impacted the bus company.
“We have had to isolate certain drivers and lay off a portion of our office staff as we have zero revenue at this time,” Ryan said. “We will be bringing back employees as they finish their isolation or as business returns to normal.
“I feel terrible, this has been my life and livelihood. We are trying to get through this and keep our office personnel and drivers employed.”
Business for the company had essentially dropped to zero in the past week with COVID-19 forcing people to self-isolate and stop all non-essential travel .
“We have cancelled all non-essential travel and made our services available to those in need,” Ryan said. Since March 12, the company has assisted Via Rail with transferring passengers to Halifax from the Montréal central station, with a single bus. There are 35 coaches in the company’s fleet. They have also transferred one bus of students from Montréal–Trudeau International Airport to Toronto when they were unable to find flights home. And again, the company helped return one group who disembarked at the New York cruise terminal and that bus was parked immediately after and the driver placed in mandatory self-isolation.
The route to Huntsville came about when the company was contacted for their services to remote communities in Northern Québec. Due to non-disclosure clauses in the contracts, Ryan was not able to say where those communities are located. He did say their company was referred by local business. “There was a request and strict requirements that we had to adhere to. One of those is that drivers may not have been out of the country in the past 28 days,” he said.
He could confirm that the buses will be helping with transportation between remote northern communities, be it people and or supplies. “If they require assistance with the transportation of medical personnel, we have offered our services,” he said. “Buses are ideal as a ‘mobile clinic’ as they have space for people and medical staff.”
He said because the company has a fleet of new buses, 2019-2020, it was decided they would be a good option. “They don’t want buses breaking down in remote locations,” he said.
Therefore, on Thursday, March 19, two drivers were sent from the Québec office and three more departed Friday from Toronto. “Like, these guys volunteered to go there, they left their homes to help people,” Ryan said.
After four hours on the road, the buses stopped for a break in Huntsville, attending Wendy’s for lunch and the Canadian Tire store. They needed to stop at Canadian Tire to have keys cut because the spare keys are kept at the head office in Montréal and these buses departed from Toronto, with Ontario-based drivers. “We have to provide a key to each driver as well as the bus washer,” Ryan said. In this case, six extra keys were needed. Canadian Tire Huntsville confirmed a man entered the store on Friday with the request for six keys.
It was the appearance of two coach buses in the retail businesses that cause such a furor in Huntsville. People assumed they were full of people from the city descending upon the small town to spread infection and scoop up limited supplies.
Evidence was provided in the form of an image of two buses in the parking lot. However, there was no evidence showing hordes of people getting off or on the coaches.
Ryan confirmed there were only the drivers and one other person on the buses. He added they were transporting emergency medical supplies in the form of 60 dispensers with hospital-grade sanitizer, which they were sending to other bus companies who are still providing essential services. “This was all procured before anything became severe. With the shortage of sanitizer we decided it was not sensible to keep it in stock and offered to other operators.”
In the day of social media, Facebook soon lit up with questions and accusations. Ryan and the bus company responded with transparency about what they were doing. And were met with further accusations of covering up and hiding their tracks.
Ryan said he was hurt with the response he has received. “I am not angry, I understand their concerns and I know people are scared,” he added. “We have shut down any service which is not essential and are only assisting those in need. We are taking every necessary precaution and have been following the government and health officials recommendations from the beginning.”
Ryan wants to ensure the residents of Huntsville and anywhere their buses operate that they are taking the COVID-19 situation very seriously. “We are one of the first industries to be shut down by this and have been taking precautions since January,” he said. “Extra cleaning, available sanitizer, driver isolation.”
Ryan added the buses will not be returning to the Muskoka region as they will be parking and living up north.
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