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As transit agencies ramp up mask enforcement, Congress airs concerns about safety of transportation workers

As Reported by Michael Laris for The Washington Post

Bus passengers in Oklahoma City were first required to wear a mask in July to blunt the spread of the coronavirus. But the city’s small transit agency was hesitant to enforce it, partly out of fear of jeopardizing its relationship with the federal government, which helps it to purchase buses.

But after President Biden’s nationwide mask mandate for public transportation took effect late Monday, that calculus changed. It’s among the latest signs of the federal government’s increased role in battling the virus amid efforts to protect transportation workers who keep essential services running.

Signs are being prepared in Oklahoma City warning passengers who won’t mask up that they could face penalties for breaking federal law. The transit agency said violators will be put on its Do Not Ride list, which previously has been used for drunk or threatening customers, and is considered a bigger stick than wielding a fine.

“When we have people who outright refuse, we’re now going to be able to suspend them” for up to 30 days, said Michael Scroggins, a spokesman for Embark, the agency that runs 90 buses in Oklahoma’s largest city. “It gives our operators, and our other customers who’ve been asking for enforcement to occur, confidence there’s a mechanism in place.”

Transportation experts said the vast majority of transit agencies have mask requirements on paper, but enforcement has been loose to nonexistent, even as the virus has spread and some workers have been attacked for pressing passengers to comply.

The House Transportation Committee held a hearing Thursday on renewed efforts to protect transportation workers and passengers from the virus, with testimony from a Florida bus driver, representatives of flight attendants and truck drivers, and the former chief of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, among others.

“Flight attendants and bus drivers have been harassed, beaten, attacked while carrying out their job duties trying to protect themselves and their other passengers from those who refuse to wear a face mask,” the committee’s chairman, Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), said at the hearing.

DeFazio said the chaotic and lackluster federal response to the pandemic during the Trump administration cost lives. The failings are being corrected with the Biden administration’s national strategy to combat the virus, but “it won’t be easy,” DeFazio said. “There is no immediate fix.”

The conditions have left many transportation workers eyeing passengers as potential threats.

“I am constantly checking the mirror, making sure that riders are keeping their masks on,” Ismael Rivera, a driver for the Orlando-area bus service LYNX, told the hearing. “I’m a bus driver, not a police officer. I don’t need political debates on my bus, but that’s the way things are right now.”

The transit agency gives drivers four masks per shift for passengers who don’t have them, said Rivera, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union local 1596, “and we hit the road hoping that’s enough.”

New directives from the Transportation Security Administration, issued Jan. 31, require bus operators, subways, ferries, airlines, airports and train stations to enforce the mask mandate. For ground transportation, passengers have to be told — when they buy tickets and again before departure — that scofflaws “may be subject to penalties under federal law.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is meeting with rail and transit workers at Washington’s Union Station on Friday to discuss masks and virus-related relief efforts.

In the air, flight attendants have reported obstinate and hostile passengers. Safety reports filed with the federal government show some customers slowly munching popcorn, apple slices and chocolate pieces to evade the airlines’ mask requirements.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said politicization has spurred confrontations.

“Just this past week, we had a family of four sucking on lollipops the whole time and thinking that that was going to be their excuse,” Nelson told the hearing, adding that the family is being banned by the airline.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which last year said it would not enforce mask violations, says it will ensure compliance with the new mandate.

Addressing the loophole on persistent snacking, a new TSA security directive says that “prolonged periods of mask removal are not permitted for eating and drinking; the mask must be worn between bites and sips.”

New federal actions, such as the mask requirement, can significantly increase worker safety, said Greg Regan, secretary-treasurer of the 33-union Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

“This kind of mandate — backed and enforced by the federal government — can mean the difference between life and death,” Regan said. “We have seen our members hospitalized after a simple request to wear a mask turns violent.”

During the hearing, Regan’s colleagues made social media posts about the frightening uncertainties workers face on the job, including one by New York bus driver Kenneth McKinney. He said he weighs the potential of being attacked — or infected — each day.

“Sometimes I don’t even want to kiss the kids, because I don’t know what today has brung,” McKinney said.

Even single riders can have devastating impacts. William P. Bahnfleth, an engineering professor at Pennsylvania State University, described a case in China of a “100-minute trip in a poorly ventilated bus on which 24 of 68 passengers were infected by a single person.”

R. Carter Langston, a TSA spokesman, said the agency is requiring that airlines “and surface transportation owners and operators ensure that all workers and passengers wear face masks to . . . facilitate healthy and secure travel.”

While “failure to comply with the mask requirement can result in civil penalties,” he added, TSA’s central objective “is to obtain voluntary compliance.”

In Oklahoma City, Scroggins said mask violations have been rare.

Face coverings are required to board, and the agency uses federal covid funding to supply masks to those who don’t have them. But people occasionally remove their masks once inside, he said. The community has done a good job of “policing it themselves, so to speak, saying, ‘Hey, you need to wear one’ or ‘It needs to cover your nose,’ that kind of thing.”

His agency, which also has 10 buses in the nearby city of Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma, “is really grateful for the stance that has been taken” now on masks, he said. There had been concern earlier that barring mask violators from riding might run afoul of other federal funding requirements, potentially imperiling much-needed financial support, Scroggins said.

Still, the biggest pandemic-era complaint the agency has received has not been about mask violators but about the effects of allowing dramatically fewer people onboard. To meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention distancing recommendations, Embark is limiting its 40-foot buses to 12 passengers, a fraction of their capacity of more than 50, Scroggins said. Ridership was down more than 40 percent in December.

With buses coming, at their quickest, every half-hour, some riders with no other options are stuck waiting for the next bus, even during the cold winter months.

“Waiting outside is really tough,” Scroggins said. “It breaks our heart to have to limit capacity.”

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