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“It’s foolish”: Experts say South Shore’s Mask Optional Car could cause super-spreader event

A South Shore Line car during non-pandemic times. Photo: Jeff Zoline

Last month when Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield brought his bike on the South Shore Line, the commuter railroad that runs between our city and South Bend, for a weekend camping trip to the Indiana Dunes, he was met with a surprise. A sandwich board was placed on the platform at Millennium Station advertising a special “Mask Optional Car” for riders who refuse to protect themselves and others from respiratory droplets during the COVID-19 respiratory pandemic by wearing a facial covering, as required in indoor public spaces by Illinois and Indiana executive orders.

Since the Mask Optional Car was also the bike car (the railroad later told Streetsblog this was an error), John was forced to enter the carriage to park his bike. There he saw six or eight passengers, almost all of them bare-faced.

The controversial COVID-denial-friendly car was no fluke and has been in effect for some time; in a post dated July 27, the South Shore Line website announced the second car of each train would be designated “Mask Optional.” When Streetsblog reached out to the Northern Indiana Commuter Transit District about the policy, NICTD president Mike Noland argued that it's basically impossible to enforce the mask rule on trains, and that this unconventional strategy was a matter of pragmatism that benefits all South Shore passengers in the long run.

“We had complaints [about mask non-compliance in the regular cars] before implementing this policy, but we’ve had zero issues since we put this in place,” Noland said. “We have 100-percent perfect compliance in the other cars nowadays. A lot of people have told us they find it reassuring to ride in a car where everyone is wearing masks... I’ll admit it’s not a perfect system, but our approach is working.”

Streetsblog decided to follow up with public health experts for their take on the issue. It turns out Streetsblog wasn’t the only organization surprised by the unusual policy. Neither the State of Illinois Department of Public Health nor the St. Joseph County Department of Health (South Bend is located in the county) were aware that the South Shore Line is officially accommodating mask-less transit riding within their jurisdictions. The Chicago Department of Public Health didn’t respond in time for publication, but the two other government agencies agreed that the policy is in violation of both the Illinois and Indiana executive order.

Dr. Robert Einterz, health officer of St. Joseph County and professor of global health and clinical medicine at Indiana University acknowledged that some people are unable to wear masks for medical reasons. But he added that it appears the Mask Optional Car policy was not specifically intended to meet this need. Indeed, the South Shore Line announcement states, “Except within the ‘Mask Optional’ car located as the second car of every train, masks are required to be worn by all passengers unless excused for reasons of deafness or medical conditions," and NICTD president Noland indicated that the Mask Optional Car policy was specifically created to deal with passengers who can wear masks, but won't.

A sandwich board at the South Shore Line's Millennium Park station for the Mask Optional Car. Photo: John Greenfield
A sandwich board at the South Shore Line's Millennium Park station for the Mask Optional Car. Photo: John Greenfield
A sandwich board at the South Shore Line's Millennium Park station for the Mask Optional Car. Photo: John Greenfield

I think most people who don’t wear a mask simply fail to accept the reality that their behavior has great potential to cause somebody’s death,” Dr. Einterz said. “It’s not clear to me why, after all the evidence out there, that they continue to believe that and behave that way, but they do. I think by and large these are good people but they fail to see the death and destruction and morbidity and mortality that some of them are most definitely causing.”

Dr. Richard Novak, chief of infectious disease at University of Illinois Chicago, concurred. “Clearly, [the Mask Optional Car policy] is a bad idea,” he said. “It’s really letting an ignorant public make health decisions the leadership of the South Shore Line should be providing with guidance from state government. From a public health perspective it’s foolish. Do they have people sign a waiver when they get on the train in the event they get COVID-19? What’s the South Shore Line’s liability?”

A few Streetsblog readers agreed with Noland that quarantining passengers who refuse to mask up in their own car, rather than distributing them throughout the train is a good idea to protect other riders who do the right thing. But Novak debunked that notion with a simple reminder of how coronavirus transmission works. “I guess it would keep them away from people who are trying to stay safe,” he said. “But the people who are not staying safe could end up like the president did in a potential super-spreader event. A carload of people all taking COVID-19 home to their families. It’s unfortunate the train company is endorsing that.”

The possibility of Mask Optional Cars becoming Rose Garden-style super-spreader sites issue is an especially pressing one for Chicagoans now that Indiana has basically lifted indoor capacity limits at all businesses, including gyms, bars, and nightclubs, even though COVID cases are rising in the Midwest. The city of Chicago recently warned that Indiana may soon be added to our city's quarantine list.

Streetsblog Chicago urges the South Shore Line to rethink its misguided Mask Optional Car and comply with state and local mandates regarding face coverings to help keep their riders and their communities safe.

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