Kyia Pleasant ends a typical weekday by parking her silver 2007 Dodge Charger in her driveway in Gainesville and heading straight to the shower. Her three children are inside their home with a babysitter and pushing for her attention, but she marches past to keep them safe.
Pleasant, 24, said she has been ride-hailing as an Uber driver to pay the bills since she lost her housekeeping job in March, when COVID-19 first emerged in Florida.
She picks up riders from Midtown, Archer Road and locations across the city all day and night, sometimes clocking out of the app at 3 a.m. Earning $200 on a good day, Pleasant said she is always mindful of staying safe despite encountering strangers in the close quarters of her vehicle.
“Money is money,” said Pleasant, who is also working for Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates.
“But at the end of the day, I do wish it’d be a little bit more, just because of the fact that I am putting my life – not only my life, but my kids’ lives – on the line by still Ubering at this time.”
Uber drivers in north central Florida report having fewer customers since March – and even less so than the normal seasonal lag that happens when University of Florida students return home.
“We just saw our ridership fall to practically nothing,” said Alesandra Rodrigues, 60, of Melrose, who hailed for Uber for three years before stopping in July.
In 2019, more than 100,000 Uber drivers were working in the state, according to Javi Correoso, a company spokesperson based in South Florida. While customer demand has recently started to rebound a bit in the area, Correoso said, business is nowhere near where it was a year ago.
He declined to give numbers specific to the Gainesville market because of business sensitivity.
Being in a vehicle with others might present a risk for COVID-19 transmission because of the close interactions as well as shared air space, said Dr. Norman Beatty, an assistant professor with the UF College of Medicine’s division of infectious diseases and global medicine.
However, riders and drivers can both minimize the risk by wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and keeping the car windows down, Beatty said.
According to Paul Myers, administrator for the Alachua County Health Department, there had not been any COVID-19 cases associated with ride-hailing in the county as of Thursday.
Jakob Breedlove, 25, of Gainesville, a part-time driver with Uber for four years, said he feels safe as long as both he and his customers follow precautions.
Breedlove has had interesting COVID-19 encounters, however. In June, for example, he took a rider through the UF testing facility at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Uber drivers can’t see where they are heading until they accept a ride, so Breedlove said he was surprised to see a multi-stop ride with the facility as the first stop, and the rider’s home as the second.
“I don’t want to say I was upset at him, but I thought it was kind of interesting that he would withhold that until we were already on the way there,” Breedlove said. “But he never contacted me again or anything, so I assume he was negative.”
Some drivers don’t share his confidence.
For Rodrigues, her history of respiratory issues exacerbated her risks, so she didn’t like seeing in the rearview mirror a rider who had pulled their mask down. Couple that with ride-hailing having put 88,000 miles on her 1-year-old Outback, and the low pay wasn’t worth it, Rodrigues said.
“Overall, it’s not really a profession where you’re compensated the way that you should be,” said Rodrigues, who jumped at the chance to work for the 2020 census instead.
Uber requires drivers to take a selfie before they start driving to verify that they are wearing a mask, Correoso said. Drivers can deny rides to customers not wearing masks, he said.
In the week following the publication of this story, Uber also announced that if drivers report that a rider was not wearing a mask during a trip, the rider would have to take a selfie confirming they are using a face covering before being allowed to ride again. Riders who continue to break the mask policy may lose access to the app, according to a company statement.
Drivers also have to confirm that they have disinfected their cars, and that they haven’t had any COVID-related symptoms in the last 14 days, Breedlove said.
Uber gives drivers the opportunity to receive a set of 10 white disposable masks from the company. More than 1 million masks have been distributed across the state so far, Correoso said.
He also said that Uber will provide two weeks of paid sick leave to drivers who can document that they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are under orders to quarantine.
Pleasant buys disinfectant wipes to clean her car in bulk from Sam’s Club, she said, and keeps a big jug of hand sanitizer in her car for herself. Breedlove similarly wipes down high-touch surfaces in his grey BMW with a rag and some cleaner before and after every shift.
Breedlove said that Midtown and downtown clubs are still hot spots for Uber, and Pleasant said she still often takes young people to fraternity row on campus.
Breedlove said he makes between $12-$15 an hour, depending on how he measures out his expenses and tips. He also said he mainly does Uber for fun to make extra money on the side.
Santa Fe College freshman Elizabeth Cunningham, 21, of Gainesville, works for Uber Eats. She prefers placing burgers and fries on doorsteps without any personal interaction over ride-hailing.
“Lots of people are only doing Uber Eats,” Cunningham said. “They’re just scared to have strangers get in their car.”
Pleasant said it can take up to two hours to disinfect her car before she comes home.
“I’ve got three kids to come home to,” she said. “I’m just not trying to bring nothing home to them.”