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Free mask dispensers on the CTA? Lightfoot: “We’ve done a tremendous amount already”

3:12 PM CST on November 5, 2020

Lightfoot at today’s presser.

I've heard complaints from CTA commuters who feel unsafe because some fellow passengers aren't wearing masks or facial coverings during the current airborne respiratory pandemic. The Active Transportation Alliance has argued that rather than the "stick" approach of an enforcement crackdown, a "carrot" strategy of making it easier for people to access masks is the most effective approach.

Granted, there is a small minority of transit riders who refuse to wear masks because they're more inclined to listen to conspiracy theorists than scientists.

But it's likely that much of the problem could be solved by making sure masks are ubiquitous, so ATA has proposed that the CTA install free mask dispensers on every bus and trains. They've launched a petition asking that this initiative be included in Chicago's 2021 budget -- 258 people have signed so far.

The CTA has already been giving away tens of thousands of reusable cloth masks via its Travel Healthy kit giveaway program, which also includes hand sanitizer and healthy travel tips. And on October 21 the agency announced that it was installing six PPE vending machines at the Belmont, Roosevelt and 79th stations on the Red Line, the Midway station on the Orange Line, the Jefferson Park station on the Blue Line, and the Kedzie station on the Green Line. These contain hand sanitizer, disposable face masks, sanitizing wipes, and disposable gloves, on sale for $3.75 to $10.

That was a step in the right direction. But ATA advocacy manager Julia Gerisamenko noted, "$3.75-$10 still aren’t accessible prices for those most in need, those who rely on transit the most."

So at today's pandemic press conference, I asked Mayor Lori Lightfoot what she thought of ATA's suggestion to offer masks on every CTA bus and train for free. After all, that initiative could potentially pay for itself in terms of reduced public health costs. Here's the mayor's response.

We have... over the course of this pandemic probably purchased somewhere between two and three million masks. We've passed [them] out through the aldermen's office. And we've done a tremendous amount to reach people who can't afford [them.]

The CTA has done... an incredible job of keeping buses and trains running, keeping them running in a way that the trains and buses and platforms and stations are clean and safe for the riders. So there's more that needs to be done; we're going to step up and do our part.

But we have done a tremendous amount already to make sure that every Chicagoan who needs PPE, masks, whatever it is that we're there for them. So obviously if there's more to do, we will do it, but I think we've done a lot.

So Lightfoot seems to be taking an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude. But feedback from straphangers suggests there's still room for improvement when it comes to mask compliance.

"We continue to hear reports of transit trips where riders are not wearing masks," said ATA's Gerisamenko in response to the mayor's comments. "The masks handed out by aldermen’s offices and the Travel Healthy kit giveaways do not do enough to ensure every transit rider is wearing a mask. The best way to keep operators and riders safe and ensure universal mask wearing on transit is by providing them free on every bus and train, especially while cases are surging locally."

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