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As the number of commuters increases, how safe does the MBTA feel?

Chris Soun sat with his bicycle while taking a commuter train from Lowell to Boston on Tuesday.
Chris Soun sat with his bicycle while taking a commuter train from Lowell to Boston on Tuesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Among the big unknowns hanging over the Boston area as a wave of commuters prepares to return to their workplaces in September: How many will go back to taking public transportation? Will they wear masks?

And maybe above all: Will it be safe?

A canvass of bus, rail, and subway lines at rush hour this week by Globe reporters found the MBTA is slowly filling with more commuters — most of whom dutifully wore masks and seemed pretty comfortable riding public transit again.

In more than a dozen interviews during the morning and afternoon rush hours on Tuesday, passengers said they felt reasonably safe, even as they cast a wary eye on the Delta variant. Some pointed to the state’s high vaccination rates. More than 62 percent of Massachusetts residents are now fully vaccinated, and nearly 70 percent have had at least one shot.

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“Boston seems relatively safe. I’m vaccinated and masked, so I’m not too worried,” said Sam Appleman, 42, of Dracut, who rode the commuter rail into the city Tuesday morning for the first time since March 2020.

And they took heart that most of their fellow passengers seemed to be complying with the mask rule. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority guidelines require passengers to wear masks over their face and mouth; not doing so could lead to removal or denial of boarding. Before April 30, passengers could be fined up to $300 for violating the mask mandate, but the fine was revoked as part of Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plans.

Given the recent rise in the spread of the Delta variant — even among those who are vaccinated — the mask rule still feels essential to many folks.

Delta “is always on my mind. I think it’s good we have to wear the masks on public transit,” said Rebecca Lyons, a vaccinated 23-year-old Woburn resident who rode the commuter rail Tuesday morning.

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Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College, said even if the mandate is lifted, he “strongly recommends” that individuals wear a mask on the T since they will be in close confines with others.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an e-mail the vast majority of passengers are wearing masks, even without the fines. Hundreds of digital panels throughout the system remind people to mask up, as do MBTA staff and audio announcements playing in stations and on the subway, he said. He also pointed to several tweets from commuters applauding MBTA staff who confronted mask scofflaws.

“Wonder of all wonders — HUGE props to the lovely employee who’s reminding passengers to put their masks on — and EVERY SINGLE ONE did — that’s all it takes @mbta @MBTA_CR,” one rider tweeted last week, just moments after complaining about six maskless riders .

Pesaturo added that all vehicles are disinfected on a daily basis, and buses are cleaned multiple times per day. Further, all T vehicles also have a very high rate of air exchange.

This fall, he said, the transit system plans to embark on the second phase of its “We’re Ready” campaign to encourage riders to return, including paid advertisements and messaging in stations, on vehicles, and online emphasizing the T’s safety measures, and reminding people of the environmental benefits of using public transit, as well as the improvements the transit system has made during the pandemic.

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The T also plans to add service as more riders return, which will provide additional capacity to allow people to maintain social distancing.

Riders are already starting to drift in. At 8 a.m. Tuesday, nearly 300 people, dressed in mostly business attire, rushed from commuter rail trains into North Station, carrying lunches and work bags.

Commuters arrived at North Station in Boston.
Commuters arrived at North Station in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Commuter rail passengers have been slower to return than riders on bus and subway lines, according to the MBTA data; ridership during the week of June 21 was just 23 percent of the weekday average in June 2019.

Daniela Albert, 33, can attest to that. The immigration attorney resumed her 40-minute commute from Billerica to Boston on the Lowell line in February, when courtrooms reopened.

Albert said the train was empty earlier in the spring. But as vaccines became more readily available, she’s seen a steady increase in the number of passengers over the months.

“In February, the train was completely empty,” Albert said.

Despite the vacant train cars, Albert was concerned about contracting COVID-19 because she was unvaccinated. Since getting her vaccine this spring, she said, she feels safer.

Daniela Albert resumed her 40-minute commute from Billerica to Boston on the Lowell line in February.
Daniela Albert resumed her 40-minute commute from Billerica to Boston on the Lowell line in February.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“I’m still wearing my mask, but it’s not as big of a concern as it was before,” she said.

Few seats were empty on a Boston College-bound Green Line train Tuesday evening, but there was plenty of standing room as hot and weary passengers headed home. The subway system has seen a moderately higher number of riders than the commuter rail, around 35 percent of its pre-COVID ridership.

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Kurt Wiessmeyer read on a Green Line train while commuting to work in Boston.
Kurt Wiessmeyer read on a Green Line train while commuting to work in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Though almost everyone wore masks, Victoria Mier, a 23-year-old Mission Hill resident on the train Tuesday evening, said she has noticed a few who did not.

”I wish people would wear masks because it’s an enclosed space,” she said.

Buses tend to have an especially high level of mask compliance, since drivers can enforce mask wearing as riders get on and pay their fare, several regular bus passengers said. Bus commuters also said that it’s not uncommon for a driver to deny entry to unmasked would-be passengers.

And most riders on the 28 Bus Tuesday morning wore face coverings as it rolled down Blue Hill Avenue between Roxbury and Mattapan.

Commuters rode on the 28 Bus, which runs from Ruggles Station to Mattapan.
Commuters rode on the 28 Bus, which runs from Ruggles Station to Mattapan.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

But not all. Tastie Jones, 27, of Dorchester, was one of them.

“I don’t feel like it,” said the security guard, who was returning from an overnight shift downtown. “It’s too hot now.”

Several rows behind her, Brian McNeil, 49, said he didn’t agree with the mask mandate. The Dorchester resident believes COVID-19 has been overblown by world leaders as a way “to stimulate fear.” But McNeill still donned a blue surgical mask when he boarded the bus.

He explained: “I’m a Black man in Boston, and I can get arrested for any reason. . . . If I don’t show some level of compliance, then I make life more difficult for myself.”

Ridership on buses has bounced back more than any other mode on the MBTA system; the network retained 54 percent of its ridership from two years ago. A year ago, ridership hovered around 35 percent of June 2019 numbers.

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Four-year-old Vaunyèe looked out the window while riding on the bus with his mom Vernèe St. Cyere.
Four-year-old Vaunyèe looked out the window while riding on the bus with his mom Vernèe St. Cyere.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The higher retention rate may be because many riders who commute by bus don’t have the option of working from home.

Mari Gonzalez of Dorchester avoided taking buses early in the pandemic. But at the start of the year, she began to ride them again, wearing a mask. Still, the 35-year-old said she gets off if the bus becomes too crowded.

“I’ve done it before,” she said.

But the dozen or so passengers scattered around the bus Tuesday morning, all masked and spaced apart, caused her no concern. “This is fine,” she said, looking around.

Commuters arrived to Ruggles Station in Roxbury.
Commuters arrived to Ruggles Station in Roxbury.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Kam Welch, a 21-year old from Tyngsborough, headed to the Lowell train station Tuesday morning wearing a mask to get to her pharmaceutical internship in Boston. Although she is vaccinated, she said she still wears a mask when she commutes, as required.

“I personally don’t mind [masking]. I’m fully vaccinated, but you never know about the people around you,” Welch said. “It’s about taking precautions and that does not harm anyone.”

Globe correspondent Camille Caldera contributed to this report.


Jack Lyons can be reached at jack.lyons@globe.com. Kate Lusignan can be reached at kate.lusignan@globe.com.