Governor Charlie Baker has said one of the keys to operating public transit as the state begins to reopen will be for riders to wear masks. But the MBTA so far has said it will not strictly enforce that requirement, a position that on Wednesday drew a backlash from the union representing the agency’s bus and subway drivers.
Face coverings have been required on the T since early May as part of an executive order from Governor Charlie Baker that also applies to retail stores or any setting where people cannot easily keep six feet apart from one another. While the MBTA expects riders to widely follow the rules, general manager Steve Poftak recently said in an interview with CommonWealth magazine that the agency “won’t be refusing rides to people who are not wearing face masks.”
Jim Evers, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589, called Poftak’s comments “disappointing and concerning" in a letter to Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.
“If the MBTA chooses not to enforce the governor’s mandate for MBTA riders, the health and safety of essential frontline MBTA workers and the passengers they transport will be at risk," Evers wrote. “Passengers should be required to wear a mask on MBTA buses, trains, and trolleys.”
More than 160 T personnel have contracted COVID-19 so far, and at least one, an inspector, has died. Thousands of other transit workers across the country have also been infected, and dozens have died from the disease.
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency has “made it very clear” that riders are expected to wear masks, bandanas, or other face coverings. “Through visual and audio messaging, the T will continue to inform riders of the executive order," he said, adding that the messaging includes the word “required.”
Baker’s executive order also includes an exception for Massachusetts residents with medical conditions that could make a mask dangerous, while also barring authorities from asking proof of the condition. Pesaturo said the T “does not have plans to ask individuals to provide proof of a medical condition.”
Evers wrote that T drivers are “sensitive to the reality that some passengers may not be able to wear masks because of underlying health conditions.” But he said riders who cannot wear a mask should instead be transferred to the MBTA’s door-to-door car service for riders with disabilities, The Ride.
Other transit agencies have struggled with enforcing mask rules, toggling between requests and requirements for riders to wear them, and then wrestling with how to enforce it. Philadelphia transit officials were widely criticized earlier in the pandemic when video circulated showing a rider forcibly removed from a vehicle for not wearing a mask. Washington, DC transit officials recently began requiring masks, yet said they were "not looking to write tickets or anything of that sort.”
Meanwhile, some transit advocates have said it would be unfair to strictly enforce mask requirements unless the MBTA is distributing them on stations.