Ride-share apps such as Uber and Lyft are rolling out new guidelines to help keep riders and drivers safe as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

By Korin Miller
May 27, 2020
Credit: Uber

Fact: Life has changed since COVID-19 arrived. Now, things that you never would have thought twice about in the past, like grabbing an Uber or Lyft, might make you wonder about your safety—specifically, your risk of becoming infected with (or potentially spreading) COVID-19.

And you're not the only one worried about it. Demand for Uber rides fell 80 percent in April, and Lyft has seen a similarly steep drop in its number of riders in recent months, according to NPR. Of course, nationwide stay-at-home orders have played a huge role in this. But even as some communities across the country begin to reopen, it's understandable if you're still feeling hesitant about using a ride-share app.

The good news is, like many other companies, ride-share businesses are adapting to a post-COVID world. Many of them are aware that drivers and riders alike are worried about their safety. To address those concerns, ride-share apps such as Uber and Lyft are implementing new safety guidelines for all users. "We [at Uber] know that everyone in this new world—at least for some time—is going to be more conscious of the health and hygiene of their activities and surroundings," says Rebecca Payne, senior product manager at Uber. "We know that we, along with everyone else, have a role to play in keeping each other safe. We all have a responsibility to keep our communities safe and healthy." (Related: Can I Run Outside During the Coronavirus Pandemic?)

Lyft has taken a similar stance, launching a new Health Safety Program to help streamline safety measures across its rides. "Lyft is taking action to build products and implement policies that help keep riders and drivers safe, as well as empower our community to protect themselves and those around them," says Angie Westbrock, vice president of global operations and the head of Lyft's COVID-19 Response Task Force. "We want the new Health Safety Program to have a meaningful impact and set a new standard for ride-share health safety."

But what will it actually look like when you take your next Uber or Lyft? And what can you do to keep yourself, and others, as safe as possible? Here's what you need to know so you can be prepared the next time you use a ride-share app.

New Lyft and Uber Rules During COVID-19

Before diving into these ride-share apps' new safety protocols, a quick recap on how COVID-19 can spread: The virus is thought to mainly spread between people who are within six feet of each other through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those droplets can land in your mouth, nose, or eyes, or they can be inhaled into your lungs, and infect you. The CDC also points out that COVID-19 can be spread by people who aren't showing symptoms, which is why the agency has heavily stressed social distancing as a way to prevent the spread of the virus. It's possible to contract COVID-19 from touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes, but the CDC says this isn't thought to be the main way the virus spreads. (See: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Transmission)

With all of that in mind, ride-share apps such as Uber and Lyft have worked with the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) to create new safety measures for riders and drivers. "We wanted to come out with clear policies and expectations of being on an Uber ride," says Payne.

Here's what you can expect when you hop into an Uber or take a Lyft:

  • Your driver will be wearing a mask. Both Uber and Lyft require that drivers wear a face covering. While Lyft will ask drivers to self-certify within the app that they're wearing a face covering, Uber actually has new app technology that requires drivers to take a selfie before they can log into the company's software. This tech detects whether the driver is wearing a mask and, if they're not, the app won't allow the driver to pick up riders. Uber plans to enforce this policy through the end of June and then reassess it "based on local public health needs," according to its website.
  • You will be asked to wear a mask, too. Lyft and Uber will each prompt riders (and drivers) to complete an in-app checklist before booking every ride, in which you'll be asked to confirm that you're wearing a face-covering (among other safety-related questions, such as whether you're currently experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms). Both apps are encouraging drivers and riders to cancel trips without penalty if they feel unsafe with someone who isn't wearing a face covering (or isn't practicing other required safety protocols).
  • You'll need to wash your hands. Technically neither ride-share service can really confirm this, but both apps are now asking riders to wash or sanitize their hands in some way before getting in the driver's car.
  • You'll be in the backseat. This is to help maintain as much social distancing as possible.
  • You'll be asked to open the windows, if possible. Open windows are encouraged during rides to increase airflow in the vehicle (and, in turn, reduce the potential spread of the virus within the car, if it's present), explains Payne.
  • Pooled and shared rides are temporarily unavailable. For the time being, both apps have paused their respective pooled ride-share services as another means to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Uber driver face mask coronavirus video
Credit: Uber

Uber is also shipping disinfectant sprays to drivers to encourage them to clean their cars regularly. The ride-share app is even partnering with Clorox in some cities across North America to help distribute disinfectants to both Uber drivers and riders. (Related: Does Vinegar Kill Viruses?)

Uber rider coronavirus safety
Credit: Uber

Lyft is similarly giving drivers disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and masks at no cost to them. Plus, Lyft is now sharing weekly email health and safety updates with drivers, along with a COVID-19 safety tutorial created with guidance from sources such as the WHO.

FYI: You might see some Lyfts or Ubers on the road with built-in partitions between the front and back seats of the car to further promote social distancing between riders and drivers. However, neither ride-share app has deemed this a requirement in their new COVID-19 safety protocols.

So, is it safe to use a ride-share app right now?

In truth, experts say there's no straightforward answer to this question. "It's going to come down to individual risk," says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "Obviously, if you're driving yourself someplace, you can't be infected by anyone else, but I don't think it's a major risk to take an Uber, Lyft, or taxi." (Related: Here's Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus and Immune Deficiencies)

FWIW, ride-share companies' new safety measures probably will help to lower your risk of contracting COVID-19, even if they're not totally foolproof in protecting you from the virus, says epidemiologist Henry F. Raymond, Dr.P.H., M.P.H., associate director for public health at The Center for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness at the Rutgers Global Health Institute. "Every [effort] helps a little bit," he notes.

To keep yourself as safe as possible, Dr. Adalja says it's important to still take the same COVID-19 precautions that you would in any other situation. That includes trying to sit as far away from the driver as you're able (for instance, consider sitting in the passenger-side backseat vs. sitting directly behind your driver, if you can help it), and cleaning your hands well—either with soap and water or hand sanitizer—before and after you leave the vehicle.

Experts say the ride-share apps' requirement to keep car windows open is clutch, too. "Air is your friend here," explains Raymond. "It's going to help dissipate any virus particles in the environment or around you."

As for the mask requirement, Dr. Adalja says it can't hurt, but he notes that the effectiveness of cloth masks, specifically, is debatable. One scientific paper recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests there is "no direct evidence" that cloth masks are effective in reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, the paper's authors also noted that certain fabrics—particularly those with a closely-knit weave that you can't see through, such as the cotton blends used to make tea towels—may block up to 97 percent of aerosol-sized virus particles. Regardless, though, "if there are regulations that say to wear a mask, wear a mask," adds Dr. Adalja. (Here are more details on how to make a DIY face mask to protect against the coronavirus.)

Ultimately, experts say it's important to keep COVID-19 risk in mind when you do anything in public spaces these days, and for the foreseeable future. "Everything [you do in publicly shared spaces] is going to have some risk," says Dr. Adalja. "You just have to decide if you want to take it."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.