Massachusetts transportation officials lifted a mask mandate on the MBTA nearly two weeks ago. That may have been premature in many residents’ eyes, according to new polling.
A little more than 50 percent of those surveyed in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll said they think people riding the subway, trains, and public buses in Massachusetts should be required to wear face coverings, with opinions shifting dramatically by party and region.
About 41 percent said they should not be required, while nearly 9 percent said they were undecided, according to the poll of 800 residents.
“I’m just worried that there is going to be another surge and I think it’s worthwhile to be cautious,” said Ron Berney, a 61-year-old retired healthcare professional and Cambridge resident. “For me, it’s not a big deal to wear them from time to time.”
A mask mandate on the MBTA’s buses and trains, in ride-share vehicles, and in transit stations had endured for nearly two years in Massachusetts before a series of decisions at the federal and state level brought an end to the requirement.
The Baker administration said on April 19 the state would no longer require face coverings on MBTA vehicles and properties, a day after a federal judge in Florida struck down a nationwide mandate on public transportation systems and airplanes.
Massachusetts Port Authority officials also announced that masks would be optional within the state’s airport facilities after the Transportation Security Administration said it would no longer enforce the requirement in the wake of the federal ruling.
At the time, Jamey Tesler, the state’s secretary of transportation, said Massachusetts was trying to remain “consistent” with the federal guidance it had long followed on face coverings.
But some residents said they should stay — and would adhere to a mandate if the state reinstituted one, citing the tight quarters on buses and subways. The poll was conducted over five days starting on April 24, a week after the federal ruling was issued.
“It’s a unique situation: You’re taking a bunch of people and cramming them into a box, if you will,” said Greg Nowak, 45-year-old structural engineer from Beverly who said he supports masks being required on public transit. “If the state brought that [back] up, I certainly wouldn’t be against it.”
While masks remained a requirement on subway rides until recently, a statewide mask mandate in Massachusetts schools was dropped months before, and a number of local mandates fell off with the ebb of the wintertime Omicron surge. When legislative leaders reopened the State House to the public in late February, they initially required masks, only to drop the rule less than two weeks later.
The poll question on masks found notable splits. In areas that rely more heavily on the MBTA — Suffolk County and northeastern and southeastern Massachusetts — 52 percent of people supported requiring face coverings. But in Western Massachusetts and the Worcester area, slightly more people (46 percent) said they should not be mandated than should (45 percent).
Among respondents who consider themselves Democrats, 66 percent say they should be required, while 62 percent of Republicans said they should not. The split was more even among unenrolled voters and independent residents, with some framing it as a personal decision.
“I don’t think the death rates are as high as they were, and I think people have the right to choose if they want to wear a mask or not,” said Rosemary Heath, a 55-year-old unenrolled voter from Taunton who in recent years said she has favored Republicans. “It’s just too much pressure from the government telling us what we can and cannot do.”
The poll of residents, conducted by calling cell phones and landlines, had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points.