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Modesto company finds a way to save 400 jobs after COVID-19 shut down its tour buses

The Modesto Bee logoThe Modesto Bee 2/1/2021 John Holland, The Modesto Bee

Feb. 1—Storer Coachways of Modesto had to cut about 400 of its employees when COVID-19 idled the tour bus business last spring.

No problem. They are back at work in a new venture at the company — mobile testing and vaccinations against this very same virus.

Storer is converting some of its 1,000 or so buses to provide these services around California. Thirteen counties so far have a bus in service following the December launch. They are leased and staffed by public and private health care providers.

One bus rolled up to an Imperial County farm to serve migrant workers. Another parked outside the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall. Still another serves homeless people in Berkeley.

"Everything you need to run a testing site is in this vehicle," President Donald Storer said while inside one of them Wednesday at his headquarters off Dakota Avenue.

He is the grandson of Walter and Gladys Storer, who founded Storer Transportation Service in 1952. It has grown into one of the state's largest bus companies and still has about 1,000 people working in public transit and other services that are deemed essential.

Donald and daughter Sarah Storer created the mobile health service, which they named BusTest Express. They had planned to offer just COVID-19 testing at first, but the rapid approval of the vaccines changed that.

The Storers hope to stay in the mobile clinic business long after COVID-19 comes under control. They envision a permanent fleet that provides vaccines against other diseases, and checkups and treatments that need not be in a doctor's office.

"We're really excited about the potential," Donald Storer said, "but right now our focus is on testing and vaccines."

Bus interiors get complete redo

Each bus conversion starts with Storer employees removing the 54 passenger seats. They then install sinks, cabinets, air filters, WiFi and other items needed to safely test and vaccinate clients. The restrooms were already in place.

A Storer driver gets each refitted bus to wherever it is needed by the entity that leased it. The company declined to say how much it charges.

At each mobile clinic, clients wait to be tested or vaccinated outside a small window on the bus. A worker reaches from inside to either poke them in the arm or hand them a nasal testing swab.

None of the converted buses is at work yet in Stanislaus, Merced or San Joaquin counties. But the idea has support from the Legacy Health Endowment, which promotes wellness in part of the region.

"The work of Storer Coachways is exciting and demonstrates its power of commitment to communities across California," said an email from Jeffrey Lewis, president and CEO of the Turlock-based nonprofit.

"But imagine if they worked with a charitable foundation, like Legacy Health Endowment, to bring more robust solutions to communities across southern Stanislaus and northern Merced counties. We are ready to explore collaboration — I hope they are."

A spokesperson for the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency could not be reached for comment about possible uses of the buses.

Transporting people for 69 years

Donald and Sarah Storer provided a COVID-safe visit for a Modesto Bee reporter and photographer. Their home base is on the same site where Storer Transportation Service was founded 69 years ago.

It began with a single bus for students in Stanislaus County's brand new special-education system. It took 13 physically disabled children to the long-gone Washington School.

From that grew a company that today has contracts to operate several public bus systems, including Turlock Transit and Stanislaus Regional Transit. Storer runs the dial-a-ride portion of Modesto Area Express.

A branch office in San Francisco provides shuttles to airports and to Silicon Valley workplaces.

Storer still cannot offer leisure travel under the state rules. This means no rides for tourists in San Francisco and other popular spots, or to casinos in Tuolumne County and elsewhere.

"When the pandemic hit, tourism and that side of our business stopped 100% overnight," Donald Storer said. He expects it to be among the last sectors to reopen.

The founders of BusTest Express set no limit on how large it might become. And they like the idea of helping with both the physical and economic health of the state and nation.

"Mobile clinics and health outreach services are in high demand in our country," Sarah Storer said in a news release. "However, a full-service vehicle and operations management package — that includes the ability to rent the vehicle — has never been an industry option until now."

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