Why Atlanta-area transit agencies won’t require passengers to use masks

Metro Atlanta transit agencies encourage passengers to wear masks but don’t require it. (AJC FILE PHOTO BY BEN GRAY/Ben@bengray.com)

Metro Atlanta transit agencies encourage passengers to wear masks but don’t require it. (AJC FILE PHOTO BY BEN GRAY/Ben@bengray.com)

Several metro Atlanta transit agencies plan to restore some service that was cut amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But even as they welcome some commuters back to public transportation by touting cleaning and other safety measures they’ve implemented, local transit services have hesitated to take one step that would make many passengers feel more comfortable: requiring all riders to wear masks.

It's a significant issue as Georgia's economy reopens and metro Atlanta residents consider how they'll get to work. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says wearing masks in public can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 at a time when hundreds of Georgians are still testing positive each day for the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Some transit customers worry about the lack of masks and social distancing they’ve seen on buses and trains amid the pandemic.

“Today I was on the bus,” said John Phillips of Norcross, who sometimes rides MARTA. “Exactly half of the people had masks and half did not. There were too many people for the amount of space.”

Transit agencies say they strongly encourage passengers to wear masks. But they say enforcing a mask requirement would be difficult. Among other things, they worry about conflicts between passengers and employees and becoming embroiled in what — for some people — has become a political debate about masks.

“I want masks to be a ‘take care of each other’ kind of proposition,” said Collie Greenwood, MARTA’s chief of bus operations. “I don’t want it to be a ‘rights and freedom’ proposition.”

Masks are just one issue transit agencies are juggling as they seek to negotiate the devastating effects of the pandemic.

In March, the number of passengers riding local trains and buses plummeted as schools and businesses closed and residents sheltered at home. Transit agencies responded by cutting service — MARTA, for example, eliminated most of its bus routes to focus on key corridors and essential destinations.

More recently, ridership has edged up as Gov. Brian Kemp has eased restrictions on businesses and public gatherings. Now agencies are making plans to restore some transit service.

Beginning Monday, Gwinnett County Transit will bring back some commuter bus service. The state’s Xpress bus service will run some routes more frequently. MARTA has already restored one route and plans to add others as demand rises.

Even as ridership fell, transit services stepped up cleaning of buses, trains and stations. They also provided masks, hand sanitizer and other protection for bus drivers and other employees. And they have encouraged social distancing among passengers by suspending fares and blocking off rows of seats.

Transit officials say such practices are likely to become the new normal for the foreseeable future. But so far MARTA, Xpress, Gwinnett County Transit and CobbLinc have not required passengers to wear masks.

Left to decide for themselves, many passengers are not covering their faces, though compliance seems to vary.

One MARTA rider estimated that only about 40% of passengers were wearing masks on a train last week. But rider Tyrone Parnell said about 75% of the people he sees are wearing masks. He said he feels very comfortable riding the train.

“People are trying to do right by wearing a mask,” Parnell said.

Local transit agencies have posted signs at stations and bus stops encouraging passengers to wear masks. They have shared CDC guidelines on their websites and on social media. When asked why they don’t require masks, the agencies offered a common refrain: It’s difficult to enforce.

“Are you going to refuse service to someone who doesn’t have a mask? Who enforces it?” asked Chris Tomlinson, the executive director of the state authority that oversees Xpress.

Tomlinson isn’t sure local transit agencies have the legal authority to require masks. Even if they do, he worries about the burden on passengers if agencies require masks but can’t supply them. And he wants to avoid confrontations with passengers who refuse to wear masks.

“We want to protect the safety of our (bus) operators,” he said. “We don’t want them getting into any type of confrontation, whether it’s physical or verbal, where you’ve got two people facing each other, talking at each other.”

MARTA's Greenwood also said enforcement is difficult. And he wants to avoid getting caught up in a political debate about individual rights.

“What I’ve seen is, nobody really wins that argument,” he said. “I want our customers not to see this as anything political.”

Still, spokesperson Stephany Fisher said MARTA is “exploring all safety options as we prepare for a post-pandemic increase in public transit use, including requiring customers to wear masks.” And she noted the agency requires all employees and contractors to wear them while on MARTA property.

So, if you venture onto trains and buses in metro Atlanta expecting to see row upon row of masked passengers, you may be disappointed. But agencies hope masks will become more common as other institutions reopen and implement their own safety precautions.

“We’re seeing people in Georgia are taking it seriously,” Tomlinson said. “What was foreign to us eight weeks ago is now commonplace.”