Mask asks: Facial coverings policy for CTA drivers; South Shore drops COVID-denier cars

A friendly reminder (bowdlerized for publication) by the Brown Line. Photo: Raed Masour
A friendly reminder (bowdlerized for publication) by the Brown Line. Photo: Raed Masour

What can be done about mask-less CTA bus drivers?

Let’s start off by giving a shoutout to all the hardworking CTA bus and train operators who have keeping the system going at full strength during the entire COVID-19 crisis, making Chicago the only major U.S. city to maintain normal transit service. Their labor has been crucial for getting essential workers where they need to go, and giving the rest of us transportation options, helping to reduce the chances of a dangerous spike in driving during the pandemic.

That said, in every large group there are sometimes a few bad, or at least uninformed, apples, and it appears that CTA bus drivers aren’t an exception to the rule. I’ve heard complaints about bus operators working without masks or facial coverings, or not wearing them properly, including this report from a Streetsblog Chicago contributor. “Most drivers are compliant, but on a few occasions I’ve seen this, sometimes on less busy or smaller routes. I saw it recently on the #59 [59th/61st Street] bus heading back to the Red Line from work.” After they mentioned that, I went back and looked at some photos from a recent CTA bus ride and saw that the driver hadn’t been wearing their mask over their nose.

Obviously, non-compliance with the CTA’s mask rule is also sometimes an issue with passengers, whether it’s due to a rider lacking the money to buy a facial covering, or simply being an irrational person who’s more inclined to listen to conspiracy theories than science.

The CTA has given 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 in October the agency announced that it was installing six PPE vending machines. The Active Transportation Alliance has launched a petition asking the city to go further by installing free mask dispensers on every bus and trains. But earlier this month Mayor Lori Lightfoot indicated that’s probably not going to happen, arguing, “We’ve done a tremendous amount already” to facilitate mask use.

Returning to the bus driver non-compliance issue, when operators fail to wear masks, or wear them properly, they not only increase their own health risk and that of their customers, they also set a bad example for riders. Here’s what the CTA had to say on the subject.

“CTA requires all employees and customers to wear masks on CTA property, in line with state and city orders requiring masks in public places,” the agency said in a statement. “Based on our observations, the vast majority are following the mask requirement.  But we continue to remind all those on the system, employees and customers, about the city, state and CDC recommendations about COVID health protocols, including the importance of wearing face coverings in public.”

COVID safety info on a CTA 'L' car. Photo: CTA
COVID safety info on a CTA ‘L’ car. Photo: CTA

The CTA statement noted that the agency has installed signs in stations, on trains and buses, and on its digital screens encouraging masks and social distancing. “We also use audio announcements, digital signs and social media to amplify this message. Everywhere one travels on CTA, they will see and hear these important reminders, which pertain to both our customers and our employees.”

Therefore ignorance of the need to wear a face covering is probably no excuse for CTA bus operators who aren’t using masks, or aren’t wearing them properly. So, barring further enforcement of the policy by the transit agency, if your bus driver isn’t wearing a mask, or not wearing it properly, you could politely ask them to correct the situation. If they aren’t responsive, or if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you could call the CTA customer service line at 1-888-968-7282 to report the incident, noting the route, direction, bus number, and time of day. That would hopeful result in the operator getting a reminder from management about the rules.

South Shore Line gets rid of its Mask Optional Cars

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Mask Optional Car sign on the platform at Millennium station. Photo: John Greenfield

There was some good news about masks on transit this week. During the pandemic the South Shore Line commuter rail line to South Bend, Indiana, has been offering a “Mask Optional Car” on each run, a head-scratcher of a policy that was apparently unique among U.S. rail systems. Mike Noland, president of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which runs the railroad, told me this was a last-resort strategy to help keep mask-compliant customers safer by quarantining COVID-deniers.

Noland said the South Shore Line previously received many complaints about mask-less riders, which may be more common in Donald Trump-friendly Indiana than in solidly blue northeast Illinois. Noland argued that, because there was no enforceable statewide mask mandate in the Hoosier State, the railroad couldn’t enforce a mask rule. “If [riders] don’t want to comply, there’s not a whole lot we can do,” he insisted. “If [elected officials] give us a law we can enforce, we’ll pivot.”

In fairness, the CTA, Metra, and Pace generally don’t refuse service to passengers who refuse to wear masks either. But at least they don’t advertise the fact that you can get away with riding bare-faced, essentially coddling flat-earth types.

Dr. Richard Novak, chief of infectious disease at University of Illinois Chicago, blasted the Mask Optional Car policy. “Clearly, it 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.”

Thankfully, in response to the recent spike in COVID cases in Indiana, which followed the full reopening of the state in late September, Governor Eric Holcomb updated the state’s COVID-19 executive order, including new enforcement guidelines applicable to mask use, effective last Sunday.

As a result, the South Shore Line stated on Sunday, “The SSL will strictly enforce the mask mandate at stations and on trains. Passengers who do not comply with the order will be subject to removal from trains. In accordance with the revised executive order [emphasis added] and the new enforcement provisions, the SSL will discontinue use of the ‘mask noncompliance’ car, effective immediately.”

But before we Illinoisans snicker too hard about the South Shore Line’s ill-advised Mask Optional Car experiment, we should keep in mind that there’s one COVID safety department where the railroad has a smarter policy than the CTA, Metra or Pace: Free masks are available onboard. “If a passenger is in need of a mask, the SSL will continue to provide masks free of charge,” the railroad stated.

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