BART reinstates mask mandate; lone Bay Area system with rule
Following pressure from riders, agency renews the policy through mid-July
BART riders are required to mask up once again, effective immediately, after the transit agency's board of directors voted April 28 to reinstate a COVID-19 mask mandate through mid-July.
The decision, which impacts the system's 50 stations in five counties, makes BART the lone Bay Area transit system to require masks. Last week, a federal court in Florida voided a federal mask mandate that led airlines and transit agencies across the country to make mask-wearing optional.
BART's new mask policy also raises the thorny issue of how it will enforce face coverings when many Bay Area residents are increasingly ditching masks in many other indoor settings.
BART police — not station managers — will enforce the mandate, and they will focus on warnings and providing masks to unmasked riders, but riders could be ejected from the system for not complying or face up to $75 citations.
“The goal is to not penalize people,” said Rebecca Saltzman, the board president. “The goal is to get people to wear their masks.”
Saltzman, along with six other board members, approved the new mask rule, following a flood of calls that BART must do more to protect vulnerable riders.
“I am a regular BART rider in general, but I can't ride if it means putting myself at risk,” Jessica Lehman, the executive director of Senior and Disability Action, told the board April 28.
“We know that disabled people, older people, the general public are watching.”
The decision amends BART's code of conduct to require masks through July 18 with exemptions for children under the age of 2 and people unable to wear masks due to medical conditions. Directors Robert Raburn and Debora Allen abstained, saying they would prefer to see masks strongly encouraged but not mandated.
Raburn said it was problematic for BART to pursue its own mask requirement without the backing of the health department.
“Health officials have to retain their authority,” he said.
BART's move comes as transit agencies have faced pushback from riders over dropping their masking policies. But other operators have been unwilling to enact mask rules without a broader public health order. Most Bay Area counties remain in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's lowest risk category for COVID-19 transmission, yet the CDC still recommends wearing masks on public transit.
On April 27, the Bay Area's largest bus operator, AC Transit, failed to renew a mask mandate in a split 3-3 vote with board members raising concerns over drivers being again tasked with enforcing the policy. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has no intention of considering a new mask requirement, the agency's board president said, and the SFMTA, which runs Muni, is also relying on local health agency guidelines.
BART has seen high rates of compliance during the pandemic, but riders have complained that people who don't don a mask faced little repercussions during the previous requirement. Ed Alvarez, the BART police chief, said seven people were issued mask citations during the pandemic.
Public health experts also raised concerns over how effective the mandate will be if riders are allowed to wear cloth masks, which are far less effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 or contracting the disease. Wellfitting N95 and KN95 masks are the gold standard in masking.
“If we're going to put back mask mandates then we should supply masks that work well in physical science studies,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco. “We're not in 2020 anymore ... we know that general mandates haven't made that big of a difference, especially with vaccination.”
Meanwhile, BART has upgraded its air ventilation system during the pandemic with hospital-grade filters that provide a level of COVID-19 filtration likely higher than an office, home or restaurant.
At the MacArthur BART station in Oakland, the vast majority of riders wore masks on April 28. Some passengers greeted the board decision with relief, including Emily Sheehy, who wore a snug N95 around her nose and mouth.
“It's a really confined space,” said Sheehy. “It doesn't hurt.”