In response to a slight increase in assaults on Bus Operators and other transit workers at a time when ridership had dropped by 50 percent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced July 20 that 160 Bridge and Tunnel Officers would be doing spot checks on buses to ensure that passengers were complying with the requirement that they wear masks.
The BTOs will be distributing face masks to those who need them, the MTA said, a task also being performed by MTA Police Officers on the agency's commuter rail lines.
No Front-Door Clashes
Earlier this month, the agency reported that assaults on its staff rose from 507 in 2019 between April and June to 515 for that period this year. What made the 1-percent increase noteworthy, besides the sharp decline in ridership as it occurred (there was also a drop of nearly 80 percent in subway passengers) was that for the entire period, riders were entering buses through the rear doors, a change the MTA made for all its bus lines aside from express buses effective March 23.
After the statistics were released, Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano made reference to the increase in assaults being driven by disputes involving riders not wearing masks and issued a July 9 statement that began, "The MTA should get a spine. There is a mask requirement. Enforce it."
He added that those not wearing a mask "should be escorted off the bus and hit with a $100 fine like fare-beating," adding, "This is much worse" since it was "jeopardizing the health of riders and bus operators."
The day before the MTA announced it was enlisting part of its law-enforcement contingent to ensure compliance with the mask policy, Mr. Utano, mindful of the growing number of attacks on his members over the issue, said in a statement, "Bus operators should not engage riders without masks, but there should be some enforcement." He had also suggested an effort to distribute masks to those who didn't have them.
When the MTA announced the use of BTOs to enforce compliance, the Local 100 leader applauded that step and the fact that in addition to their handing out masks, other MTA personnel and volunteers would be providing them at bus stops, as well as in the subway system. The agency beginning July 24 will have a pilot program on two Bronx routes offering Select Bus Service, the Bx12 SBS and the Bx41 SBS, with surgical-mask dispensers.
The union had surveyed bus routes and found that while on some, compliance by riders was "excellent," there were others where 35-40 percent of the passengers were not wearing them.
Local 100 spokesman Pete Donohue said in a July 21 phone interview that the assaults hadn't come only from maskless riders who took exception when Bus Operators chastised them for violating the regulation. "Some riders get mad with a bus driver for not enforcing the rule," he said, blaming them as much as the recalcitrant riders for not acting to safeguard their health.
Other Protections Sought
Mr. Utano called the moves announced by the MTA "positive steps." He previously had called for other measures aimed at protecting Bus Operators and in some cases, passengers as well. They included installing anti-virus filters on buses and ultraviolet lights to kill the virus, and the opening of cleaning/disinfection stations at the terminal points of bus routes for use by the drivers before going on their next run.
He also asked that future buses be designed with full cabs or compartments shielding them from riders, similar to what Train Operators have. This would require that the front door of the vehicles be moved behind their front right wheel.
In announcing the new program, dubbed "Operation Respect" because of its focus on getting all riders to cover their faces while on the buses, MTA Chief Safety Officer Patrick Warren said in a statement, "The science is clear on this. Face coverings help reduce the spread of germs and viruses, and we are doing everything we can to help our customers travel using this life-saving principle."
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