Mask Mandate May Lead to Conflicts on MBTA As Riders Return, T Workforce Limited by COVID-19
Capping ridership on buses and trains is not on the table as the MBTA prepares for a monthslong, gradual resumption of public activity, nor is denying service to system users who do not cover their faces despite an executive order urging mask usage, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Wednesday.
During a wide-ranging interview with WBUR's Radio Boston Poftak said leaders at the agency are exploring ways to manage demand but hinted that designating maskless-only vehicles, strictly enforcing face-covering or distancing, and significantly increasing capacity — at least in the next few weeks — are not within reach.
Under Gov. Charlie Baker's executive order requiring face coverings when social distancing is impossible, commuters are required to wear a mask or similar garment on public transit. However, the order exempts individuals who have a medical condition preventing them from covering their faces, and Poftak said that language precludes a mandate to riders even though he agrees the practice is "really important."
"No one is allowed to ask them to verify that they have this medical condition, so we're in a position where we really can't enforce it in a police action kind of way," he told WBUR.
That policy may add to the trepidation of riders and is also creating anxiety among MBTA workers, according to the Boston Carmen's Union that represents thousands of them.
On Wednesday, Carmen's Union President James Evers wrote to Poftak, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and legislative leaders warning that MBTA employees and their passengers will face significant health risks if the face-covering requirement is not enforced.
"In recent weeks, we have seen passenger volume on buses rise 20%," Evers wrote. "As the state begins to embark on reopening efforts, MBTA drivers and operators are increasingly concerned about what reopening will mean for increased passenger volume and, as a result, the increased risk of exposure in these confined spaces."
"It is not enough to simply ask passengers to comply — it must be enforced," Evers added, noting that riders who have health issues should use the T's RIDE paratransit service.
Under the Baker administration's phased reopening plan, office spaces in Boston — where many workers commute via public transportation — can reopen at 25 percent capacity starting June 1.
Poftak told WBUR that setting aside certain train cars or buses as available only for riders who do not covered their faces "doesn't feel like an approach we'd try to take," particularly because Green Line trains often run only two cars.
Later during the Radio Boston segment, former Transportation Secretary and TransitMatters board member Jim Aloisi said the T should not enforce the covering requirement but should help protect riders by making masks or other coverings available to riders who do not have their own.
"There are ways to facilitate the governor's order without enforcement," he said. "If we can understand that distinction, we can understand that, other than messaging, the T is not facilitating."
Some stakeholders have also been frustrated with the short-term service outlook at the T since Monday, when the Baker administration indicated that schedules will remain on reduced weekend levels across almost the entire system for the first reopening phase. Full service is not planned until Phase 3, which is at least six weeks away.
In a Wednesday press release, the TransitMatters advocacy group urged T officials to commit to more frequent trains and buses even with ridership down 80 to 90 percent in order to prevent crowding that could create COVID-19 transmission risks.
"The only way our entire community can chart a better path forward is for the T to lead by beginning to offer much lower headways (time between trains) — service that will prove its ability to provide access and mobility safely throughout the day," the group wrote. "The T has to act first; the T has to lead."
Asked if the MBTA would consider expanding capacity during the first phase, Poftak said the agency's employees have been hit hard by the virus outbreak. More than 1,000 of the T's 6,400 employees have taken COVID-related leave in the past two months, he said, including more than 370 currently.
"Part of us getting back to full capacity is having workforce availability," he said.
Projecting ridership is challenging. MBTA budget-writers expect that fare revenue — a close proxy for overall trips — is most likely to remain near its depleted level until at least December before creeping back up. By June 2021, they project, it could be near 60 percent of what it was before the pandemic hit.
"We'll look carefully as to how ridership comes back, and that might cause us to think differently about our priorities," Poftak told WBUR. "We'll let our riders and passengers guide us as we think about the future."
A Suffolk University/WGBH/Boston Globe poll this month found that nearly 80 percent of Massachusetts residents would not feel comfortable riding public transit, forecasting that many could turn to cars for their commutes.
Chris Dempsey, executive director of the Transportation for Massachusetts advocacy coalition, told Radio Boston that state officials can maintain positive trends in air pollution and pedestrian activity if they act to discourage leaning on single-occupancy cars trips.
"We're not going to go back to the worst congestion in the country overnight," he said. "Those are not things that can only exist in a public health crisis. They can keep with us if we take the right approach."