ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County Area Transit has announced the extension if its no-fare policy through Saturday, May 23 in an effort to protect drivers and riders from potentially spreading COVID-19.

The TCAT Board of Directors voted unanimously to extend the policy, which was set to expire on Thursday. The policy originally took effect on March 20.

“As this pandemic persists, it remains critical that we continue to do everything we can to protect not only our passengers, but also TCAT drivers and other front-line employees who are fulfilling an essential service,” said TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool. “This is probably the first time in history that transit agencies all over the globe are asking their riders to stay home.’’

The intention of the policy change is to cut down on passengers touching the farebox, which could be a point of spread, as well as to stop passengers from spending extra time near the driver, who sits directly next to the farebox. TCAT also intends the policy to serve as relief to those who may be struggling financially due to the pandemic.

TCAT is also asking residents to only take the bus when necessary, for instance,  if they are essential workers or if they need to travel to pick up life-sustaining basics, such as food and medicine. Capacity is being limited to 20 passengers per bus to help maintain social distancing.

TCAT, a joint venture between Cornell University, Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca, has seen ridership fall more than 90% since last month. Cornell represents the largest TCAT ridership, as well as Tompkin Cortland Community College and Ithaca College, have switched to remote instruction for the rest of the semester, dramatically reducing demand for TCAT services. TCAT announced it was implementing its modified schedule early, only offering about 65% of its normal service.