MARTA won’t enforce Atlanta mask requirement

MARTA said it will not enforce Atlanta's new requirement that residents wear masks in public as COVID-19 cases continue to spike in Georgia.

The regional transit agency will educate passengers about the city's requirement – contained in an executive order signed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms late Wednesday – by making announcements on buses and trains. But CEO Jeffrey Parker told the MARTA Board he does not want to provoke confrontations between employees and passengers over an issue that has become highly politicized.

“I’m very hesitant to put our front-line employees, particularly bus operators, in a clear conflict with people,” Parker told the board Thursday. “For reasons that perplex me, we’re so polarized about this issue of having to wear masks.”

At least one board member believes the risk of confrontations would be worth the lives saved by requiring all passengers to wear masks.

“It’s clear this is a deadly virus,” said board member Dr. Roderick Edmond, a physician. “If they don’t wear a mask, they should not be allowed to ride.”

Thursday's discussion was the latest evidence that the coronavirus pandemic poses a substantial threat to transit agencies and their customers. Ridership on local transit services plummeted as Georgia schools and businesses closed amid the pandemic, and it has hardly recovered as the state gradually reopened in recent weeks. That's taken a toll on agency budgets.

The pandemic also has taken a toll on employees. As of Thursday, 87 MARTA employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and one has died.

MARTA and other agencies have increased cleaning of transit stations and vehicles and have taken other steps to protect passengers and employees from the virus. In April, MARTA eliminated most of its bus routes to focus service on key routes and to promote social distancing. And on Monday it began distributing two million masks to customers.

MARTA believes only about half of its passengers wear masks. But agency officials have been reluctant to require masks to board trains and buses – even as Atlanta and East Point – both within MARTA's service area – have adopted mask requirements.

On Thursday Parker told the board the cities themselves are emphasizing education, not enforcement.

“The compliance is really around educating people,” he said. “We will follow suit with that.”

Edmonds said the pandemic is an unprecedented threat. He said allowing passengers on trains and buses without masks is “irresponsible.”

Other board members also support requiring masks – if MARTA can develop clear enforcement guidelines.

“That’s the part I think we all struggle with,” said board Chairwoman Freda Hardage. “I think you’d get 100 percent agreement that we need to encourage masks. It’s the enforcement part that we need to figure out.”