Supervisor Hahn Calls for Requiring Face Covering for Metro Bus Riders

Long Beach Transit COVID-19 face covering campaign image
Long Beach Transit COVID-19 face covering campaign image

Yesterday, the L.A. Times published an excellent article on hazards faced by Metro bus drivers during the coronavirus pandemic. Nationally, more than a hundred transit workers, many of them bus drivers, have died of COVID-19. Metro operators are “spending hours in a confined space with strangers, wondering whether this will be the day they get sick.” The article highlighted several problems, including with riders and mask wearing:

Metro has encouraged riders to wear masks but does not require them. The digital signs on the face of the buses now flash the line, the destination, and a new message: “Travel Safe: Wear a Face Mask on Board.”

Not requiring masks “feels like a slap in the face,” said a driver who works in Chatsworth. “If you have to wear a mask to go to Target or the grocery store, you should also need to do that when you get on a bus. You’re in a small, confined space with other people.”

Shortly after the article was published, L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn responded. On Twitter she shared a letter she sent to Metro urging the agency to “require face coverings to board Metro buses and trains in order to protect the health of both its passengers and operators.” The Times ran a follow-up article which included a statement from Hahn’s spokesperson saying that “if the policy were enacted and a rider were not carrying a face covering, Hahn would want Metro to provide one.”

Certainly Metro needs to take measures to protect the health of its operators and riders getting to essential jobs and taking essential trips. Metro and other transit agencies have already done a great deal to foster the health of its staff and riders, including supplying personal protective equipment (PPE) for operators.

Achieving greater face-covering compliance isn’t easy.

Heavy-handed enforcement is problematic at the best of times, and under COVID-19 can increase the risk of exposure and spread. A cautionary tale from Philadelphia illustrates how a transit rider mask requirement enforcement can go wrong. In early April, ten law enforcement officers forcibly pulled a man off a bus for not wearing a face covering. Videos of confrontations went viral.

This led to Philadelphia’s transit agency, SEPTA, reversing their bus rider mask requirement and beginning a free mask distribution program.

Detroit and Austin also make free masks available to transit riders.

On bus free mask dispenser - photo by Detroit DOT
On bus free mask dispenser – photo by Detroit DOT

Since mid-April, Los Angeles County COVID-19 orders have essentially required that Angelenos wear face coverings in public settings, including on transit. The county – and transit agencies – are quick to note that medical masks are needed for medical workers, and that the general public should wear non-medical face-coverings like fabric masks, bandanas, scarves, etc.

Foothill Transit Communications Director Felicia Friesema notes that her agency was encouraging masks on board the buses before they were required by the county.

Foothill Transit promotion mandating face-covering to prevent COVID-19 spread
Foothill Transit promotion mandating face-covering to prevent COVID-19 spread

Per Friesema, when the county orders changed, Foothill changed its signs on board to state that “a face covering is required to board and ride,” though she notes that enforcing the requirement would have created a safety issue for bus operators. She reports that almost all customers are wearing face coverings, with occasional exceptions.

As of today, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus riders are required to wear non-medical face coverings at all times. Per spokesperson Michael Gold, Long Beach Transit has implemented “an extensive communication campaign… encouraging customers to wear masks while onboard buses.”

Supervisor Hahn requested that Metro CEO Phil Washington take action immediately and not wait until the next meeting of the Metro Board, which will take place May 28.

It is not clear that adopting (and promoting) a policy requiring masks would do much to improve compliance. Most bus riders are already wearing face coverings. As the Times notes, having bus operators enforce a mask requirement would be “physically impractical” according to Metro spokesperson Dave Sotero.

Giving away free masks would cost the agency – but prevention could be cheaper than cure. And getting free masks onto the faces of low-income riders who can’t afford them would contribute to the broader public health goal of preventing the spread of the virus.

The logistics of distributing free masks is not clear; it is not easy to have customers take just one. Mid-run operator re-stocking could risk exposure. One bus driver requesting anonymity worried that setting up a “hey everyone come touch this face mask dispenser” grossly negates the purpose of them. Metro should be able to look to best practices from other agencies across the country that are already distributing masks.

Foothill Transit’s Friesema noted that complying with the face-covering mandate “is a civic responsibility that everyone must follow.” Further, she states, “It is crucial that individuals take this seriously and protect themselves and everyone around them in public spaces, and that includes riding on public transit. We’re doing our part by making sure our teams are properly equipped with PPE and that the buses are disinfected daily, with wipe-downs after each trip. Riding with us is safe. Help us keep it that way by covering your face when you board.”

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