A mask mandate for commuter rail passengers is back by popular demand in the San Francisco Bay Area, the region that two years ago imposed the nation’s first coronavirus stay-at-home order and now is bucking the national trend away from required face coverings.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit system, known as BART, had decided last week to drop its rule in line with a federal court ruling but that decision prompted an outcry, spokeswoman Alicia Trost said Friday.
“We started to immediately hear from riders in phone calls, emails, tweets, that they felt unsafe on the train if there was not a mask mandate,” BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said Friday.
BART’s board of directors decided in a meeting Thursday to temporarily restore the mask rule until at least July 18, the agency said in a statement. Children ages 2 and under as well as people with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks are exempt from the mandate.
The decision makes the Bay Area's largest transit system the latest in California to bring back a mandate for face coverings after Los Angeles County restored its masking rule a week ago for all public transportation including buses, trains, subways, taxis and airports.
The reinstatement came 10 days after a federal judge in Florida ended the nation’s federal mask mandate on public transportation, freeing airlines, airports and mass transit systems to make their own decisions about mask requirements. A mix of responses has taken shape across the country that reflects the nation’s ongoing divisions over how to battle the virus.
Major airlines immediately dropped mask requirements after the decision, as did many local transit agencies around the country.
New York City, Chicago and Connecticut, however, continued to require masks for travelers.
San Francisco and Los Angeles public transit agencies initially dropped their mask requirements, but many have since flip-flopped.
Thursday’s BART board meeting was flooded by callers who voiced support for reinstating the policy in particular to protect vulnerable riders, Trost said.
BART, which connects San Francisco to its eastern and southern suburbs, is struggling to restore ridership that plummeted from pre-pandemic highs of over 400,000 weekday riders to about 130,000, according to recent data. It quickly became clear that banishing mask mandates would not help.
“We are still really trying to win back riders, and I think masks can play an important role in doing that," Trost said.
San Francisco and the wider Bay Area have had some of the strictest pandemic regulations and compliance with the rules in the nation, starting in March 2020 when the Bay Area became the first to declare a state of emergency. Many residents have continued to wear masks in supermarkets and other indoor venues even though indoor mask mandates were largely lifted in February. Similarly, most BART riders have continued to wear masks in the past week, despite the temporary lifting of the mask rule.
BART said its police force will emphasize education-based enforcement by offering masks to riders before issuing citations up to $75 or ejecting anyone. BART officials said that police won’t use those enforcement options for the first week of the mandate.
COVID-19 infections in California have multiplied in recent weeks, following a trend seen around the country, but hospitalizations remain low in California. The Bay Area has reported a more pronounced spike in cases than elsewhere in the state with a seven-day average of 26 new cases per 100,000 residents, compared to 10.6 cases per 100,000 in California overall.
However, Los Angeles County on Friday reported more than 28 new cases per 100,000 residents. Public health officials said the county was experiencing “a high rate of transmission" and cases were steadily rising.