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Beyond Chicagoland

Local transit agencies: CDC mask mandate will give our existing rules more teeth

6:44 PM CST on February 2, 2021

Good mask compliance on a Red Line car in late December. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicagoland transit agencies says a new U.S. Centers for Disease Control-issued nationwide mask mandate for public transportation will give them more authority to enforce their existing rules requiring face coverings.

The day after President Joe Biden took office, he signed an executive order that calling for "immediate action" on masks on "all forms of public transportation." The CDC announced last Friday that the mandate would kick in Monday evening. The new rule applies to buses and subways, as well as taxis, ride-hail, intercity rail, planes, ferries, and other boats. Also included are train stations, bus depots, airports, and seaports.

The CDC order said the rule would rely mostly on "widespread voluntary compliance," rather than additional enforcement. However, Chicago area transit systems told Streetsblog the new rule will still give them additional confidence to require their passengers to wear face coverings.


"In response to the new federal directive, CTA is revising its extensive messaging to reflect that the mask requirement is also now a federal mandate," the agency said in a statement. "Our website and onboard and platform announcements will also be updated." It noted that that masks have been required on buses and trains in Illinois since May 1 of last year, when Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a statewide mask mandate.

However, the CTA indicated that it won't immediately be changing its protocols, which don't require employees to refuse service to people who won't wear masks. (The agency has installed free mask dispensers on some bus lines and  has distributed complimentary Travel Healthy Kits with masks and hand sanitizer.) "The CTA is working with transit agencies across the country to get further guidance and clarification from the FTA and TSA on the emergency order requiring masks, and how CTA can implement safe, practical and effective procedures to support this requirement FTA and the TSA have promised additional guidance on this directive, which CTA is awaiting.


Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis said that in response to the new order, the commuter railroad's ticket agents and conductors will not sell a ticket to anyone not wearing a mask. "We are revising our messaging to reflect that the mask requirement is also now a federal mandate," he said. "Our website and onboard and platform announcements also are being updated."

Gillis added that conductors have a supply of free masks to offer to any customer who is not wearing one. "It is our experience that the vast majority of our customers understand the mandate and its role in promoting public health; by our count more than 99 percent of riders are complying on a daily basis."

Last week when I rode the Union Pacific North line I estimated that about 20 percent of riders weren't wearing masks. Union Pacific Railroad, which operates the the UP-North and two other lines for Metra, has been refusing to have its conductors patrol the trains during the pandemic, which may help explain the lower compliance. Hopefully that ratio will improve as new signs are added to the trains noting that there is now a federal mandate for face coverings.


"The new federal mandate does lend more weight to the enforcement of the [mask] rule," said Pace spokesperson Maggie Daly-Skogsbakken. "We currently have audio and print messages on board buses that reinforce the requirement, and our operators can trigger the audio message when they see someone board without a mask. We are updating that messaging to add that this is now a federal requirement and will add reminders to our destination signs on the exterior of the bus as well."

Unlike the CTA, Daly-Skogsbakken said people without a face covering will not be allowed to board Pace vehicles, and riders who take off their masks while on board Pace vehicles will be asked to leave. "Failure to comply is a violation of federal law and operators will pause operations and call supervision, which may result in the involvement of law enforcement."

South Shore Line

The South Shore Line, which is headquartered in Indiana, tried a unique and highly controversial policy last year by offering a Mask Optional Car on each train in order to quarantine people who refused to wear masks. In November, after Indiana's statewide pandemic executive order was updated, including new guidelines for mask enforcement, the commuter railroad finally got rid of the COVID-denier cars.

Mike Noland, president of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which runs the South Shore, said riders won't see much of a change under the CDC order, "But I do think its important that they know this is both a state and federal requirement." Like Metra, South Shore conductors have free masks to offer to passengers who lack them.

"The SSL will continue to strictly enforce the mask mandate at stations and on trains," the railroad said in a statement regarding the federal order. "Passengers who do not comply with the orders will be subject to removal from trains."

So hopefully now that the federal government is getting more serious about mask compliance, we'll see better behavior on this front from local transit riders.

Mask compliance was pretty good on this Pace bus today. Photo: Jeff Zoline
Mask compliance was pretty good on this Pace bus today. Photo: Jeff Zoline
Mask compliance was pretty good on this Pace bus today. Photo: Jeff Zoline

Streetsblog photo contributor Jeff Zoline said the drivers of a Pace bus he rode today from the Howard Red Line station seemed particularly mask-conscious. Moreover there was a message on the bus' electronic banner reading "Federal law requires you to wear a mask to ride."

"While I was on the 215 heading over to Target, the driver called back to remind another rider to mask up or face removal from the bus around Howard/Damen," Jeff reported. "She looked like she was checking back in the rear view mirror at every red light."

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