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Stacie Kershner, Georgia State University and Karen Johnston, Georgia State University

Many U.S. metropolitan areas report that at least 90% of public transit passengers wear masks while on buses to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

However, some passengers still wear their masks incorrectly. And some refuse to wear them at all, threatening the health and safety of others on board.

Staff at many transit systems have already faced the difficult task of enforcing passenger compliance with local and state mask mandates.

Now, staff and passengers of public transit systems must also comply with federal orders, issued in January and February. Passengers who violate the federal mask orders may face penalties of US$250 for a first offense and up to $1,500 for repeat offenses.

In addition to driving, public transit drivers are now responsible for preventing unmasked passengers from boarding, monitoring passengers for compliance and removing unruly customers.

These responsibilities create hurdles for public transit drivers, particularly when public transit systems prefer customer-friendly approaches instead of civil or criminal penalties to increase compliance.

Federal mask orders

President Joe Biden issued an executive order on Jan. 21 mandating that certain federal government agencies require travelers to wear masks while on commercial airlines, trains and buses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its own order on Jan. 29. It requires all passengers to wear masks, except babies and toddlers under age 2 and persons with disabilities. The order also requires transportation companies and public transit systems to enforce mask-wearing in airports, seaports, train terminals and bus stations.

The Transportation Security Administration also issued a directive on Jan. 31 supporting President Biden’s directive and implementing the CDC’s orders. The TSA also issued guidance to public transit systems for reporting violations so that the TSA can issue fines.

Through ongoing research funded by the Natural Hazards Center, our team of lawyers, sociologists and urban planners at the Georgia State University Urban Studies Institute conducted focus groups with public bus drivers in the Atlanta metro area to assess public transit’s response to COVID-19.

The goal of the research is to develop policies to prevent future disease spread, maintain service during emergencies and protect community access to public transit.

The bus drivers in the focus groups shared the difficulties they have faced so far when enforcing mask orders.

Driver problems

Besides their traditional job of safe driving and maintaining a timely schedule, public bus drivers now must encourage passengers to wear masks and remove passengers who refuse. They must also promote social distancing by limiting the number of passengers and clean buses between routes.

Drivers report that buses often don’t have enough masks for passengers who arrive without one. Many public transit systems have installed mask kiosks at rail or bus stations, but bus stops don’t have them. Though many buses have been retrofitted with mask dispensers, supplies must be monitored and regularly replenished, another new responsibility that usually falls to the bus driver.

Train operators are separated from passengers because they are in a separate, closed-off compartment. They are spared from having to enforce mask orders. But this leaves compliance largely unchecked.

On buses, however, drivers do have contact with passengers and must enforce mask orders. But, drivers are generally the only staff on board. They cannot easily remove passengers for not following orders. They also fear endangering themselves or other passengers.

Across the country, drivers have faced hostility and even violence when trying to enforce mask mandates.

We found that drivers use several tactics to address passenger refusal to wear masks.

Drivers can call security to provide help. These calls are not always answered quickly, and sometimes they are not answered at all. When security does respond, drivers report actions that reward noncompliant passengers. To defuse a situation, security may provide a free taxi or ride-share service. This promotes future noncompliance by passengers.

Drivers can also refuse to move the bus as leverage to force passengers to wear masks. However, this can make the bus and its passengers late. Other passengers may file complaints for delays or missed connections. And drivers may be reprimanded by supervisors.

Drivers worry these complaints may jeopardize performance reviews and job security.

Potential solutions

Based on our interviews, there are some potential solutions that public transit systems might take to support drivers and increase mask usage on buses.

These include:

  • • Hiring more staff to assist with enforcement.
  • • Supplying masks and replenishing distribution kiosks frequently.
  • • Developing clear policies on what measures drivers are expected to take when enforcing mask mandates.
  • • Providing driver training on enforcement methods, including how to deescalate upset passengers.
  • • Training management on how to balance supporting drivers with maintaining customer service.

All these efforts would cost more money. So providing local, state and federal funding for these efforts, including money from the CARES Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, may help public transit systems increase passenger mask-wearing.

These solutions could help to protect the health and safety of passengers and staff as full service is restored and more passengers return to public transit.

Stacie Kershner, Associate Director, Center for Law, Health & Society, Georgia State University and Karen Johnston, Associate Director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Metropolitan Growth, Georgia State University

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