Passengers are no longer required to wear masks on Newton’s NewMo rideshare service, the NewMo team announced April 21 in an e-mail to customers. The announcement came days after a federal judge struck down the federal mask requirement on public transportation.
“In line with the lifting of the federal mask mandate, we no longer require you to wear a mask or face covering on NewMo rides,” the email said. “You can of course choose to continue covering your face, we leave the decision up to you!”
Nicole Freedman, director of Transportation Planning at the City of Newton, said the city made the decision to align with local, state, and federal guidelines.
“The mask mandate was lifted in Massachusetts on the MBTA, so we followed suit,” Freedman said. “We also have our health commissioner and our mayor look at all the statistics for Newton and make sure that we feel it’s safe.”
Masks are still required to be worn on the MBTA’s paratransit service, The RIDE, according to the agency’s website.
Short for “Newton in Motion,” NewMo, which the city launched in 2019 under contract with Via Transportation, offers door-to-door carpool service for senior passengers and corner-to-corner carpool service for other commuters.
Via Transportation, which operates NewMo, does not have a nationwide masking policy across its services in municipalities around the country.
“Via works with its partners in each individual market to decide when and if mask mandates are lifted,” Sara-Jessica Dilks, associate principal of Public Relations at Via, wrote in an e-mail. “There are a handful of services in other parts of the country where we’ve worked with the partner to keep the mask mandate for now.”
Jayne Colino, director of Newton’s Department of Senior Services, said they made the decision to provide more uniformity.
“There’s been so much confusion with COVID, and we’re trying to be consistent in fielding our decisions with other industry information,” Colino said in a phone interview. “We have found that if we do things differently than other parts of the network, it causes anxiety sometimes, it causes confusion, and we just want to diminish that as much as possible.”
Freedman said the city is emphasizing how passengers and drivers still have the option to wear a mask, and the average trip duration on NewMo is under 15 minutes. “Those two things coupled together, plus the plastic divider between the drivers and the passengers, plus the low rates of COVID right now in Newton and the region, we feel do make it safe,” she said.
In the week of April 21 to 27, there were 253 confirmed new COVID-19 cases in Newton, up from 177 cases the week before, according to Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s weekly e-mail update released April 28.
City officials said there is an ever-increasing demand for NewMo, and Freedman pointed to how the service is providing upward of 300 rides on some days, and well over 250 on most days.
“This is what I think of as meaningful, relevant public transportation for Newton,” Freedman said. “Many of the riders don’t have viable alternatives to NewMo.”
Colino said this increasing demand prompted the city to open up the front passenger seat to NewMo riders. The service now allows for up to three passengers at a time.
“With the mask mandate being lifted, we thought maybe it’ll lift some of this anxiety about having three people in a vehicle as well, by being able to put somebody in the front seat,” Colino said.
Colino said decisions around COVID and public transportation are part of a balancing act between keeping people safe and meeting demand.
“Transportation is one of the most expensive things that we do with our resources, and we want to make sure that we’re serving as many people as possible,” Colino said.
The service continues to grow in ridership, especially after NewMo expanded in July 2021 from a senior rideshare service to one which serves all Newton commuters.
“We hit record ridership in March, I believe it was with 6,000 rides,” Colino said. “We’re suffering from success.”
Justin Tang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.