Additional reporting by With Clifford Michel
An MTA survey last month of mask-wearing in the transit system found that 96% of bus riders were sporting facial coverings — some of them incorrectly.
A spotcheck by THE CITY of 15 bus routes citywide last week found a wide variance, with only a pair where proper mask-wearing topped 90% — and one Queens bus where barely a third of the riders fully covered their noses and mouths.
In all, nearly a quarter of the almost 300 riders observed by THE CITY either wore a mask improperly or had none at all.
“A lot of people think their masks are beards or have their noses out and it’s like the mask isn’t even there,” said Lucrecia Prensa, 64, who was waiting for a Bx21 bus along Third Avenue in The Bronx.
THE CITY’s unscientific findings point to the difficulties faced by the MTA in ensuring compliance with an April 15 order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that made mask-wearing mandatory throughout the transit system during the pandemic.
The findings also underscore the harassment endured by those at the steering wheel — and in the line of fire over mask compliance.
Between the mid-April order and the end of July, the MTA logged 156 instances of bus drivers being harassed or assaulted by riders who refused to follow social distancing or face-covering guidelines.
The financially troubled transit agency last week resumed collecting fares on buses and allowed front-door boarding for the first time since late March. That’s only increased the vulnerability of bus drivers during a tense period, union leaders say.
On Friday, a man became irate at the sight of people not wearing masks on a Madison Avenue bus and spit on the driver’s face before fleeing, according to the MTA.
On Sunday, the NYPD put up a $2,500 reward for the information leading to the arrest and conviction of a woman and man who assaulted a bus driver in the East Village last week after he ejected them for harassing another rider.
Sources said MTA officials have been “seriously discussing” fining riders who don’t cover their faces properly.
“The [bus] operator is the person that is going to say something — they’re on the front line,” said JP Patafio, a Transport Workers Union Local 100 vice president for Brooklyn bus drivers. “They’re going to come into situations where there is danger, it comes with the job.”
Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, has called on the MTA to issue $100 fines against anyone not wearing masks in the transit system. The union on Monday also began running radio spots encouraging riders to cover their faces.
‘Wear a Damn Mask’
Brooklyn buses, according to the MTA, have recorded the highest number of incidents of harassment and assaults against bus drivers, with five apiece reported on these routes:
- B8, between East Flatbush and Dyker Heights
- B15, between Bedford Stuyvesant and Kennedy Airport
- B25, between Downtown Brooklyn/DUMBO and Broadway Junction
- B43, between Greenpoint and Lefferts Gardens
- B44, between Williamsburg and Sheepshead Bay
- B83, between Spring Creek and Broadway Junction
“I see people every day who get angry over having to wear a mask on the bus,” said Javier Juarez, 45, who was waiting for a B35 bus in East Flatbush. “I just step to the side.”
The B35, which runs between Brownsville and Sunset Park, had logged four incidents related to mask compliance and social distancing between mid-April and the end of July, according to the MTA.
Of the 47 passengers riding along the route Thursday afternoon, 36 — or 75.6% — covered their faces properly, THE CITY found. Seven failed to cover their noses and four didn’t wear masks at all.
A B25 in Downtown Brooklyn that was carrying four riders had 100% mask compliance and an S61 on Staten Island had 16 of its 18 riders properly covering their faces.
But that was not the case on most other routes surveyed by THE CITY.
Some 77% of the 297 riders encountered by THE CITY wore their masks correctly, 15% had them on improperly, while 8% went without any face covering. The bus drivers on all 15 routes wore masks and had them on correctly.
An MTA spokesperson called THE CITY’S findings “anecdotal,” saying passengers are less likely to don masks during afternoon hours and citing an agency survey that shows mask usage as high as 93% across the buses and subways.
“We recognize not everyone wearing a mask is doing so properly and continually have urged that they do so for the safety of themselves and others around them,” said the spokesperson, Ken Lovett. “We can’t say it enough: Wear a damn mask.”
Masks are available in subway subway stations and mask dispensers have been installed on some buses. Those not wearing masks can also be asked to leave a bus, train or station.
Yet full compliance remains elusive as bus ridership on Thursday reached just over 1 million, down 53% from 2019, MTA figures show.
“We have to strive for it, but it’s not easy,” Patafio said. “There’s no magic wand that gets us there.”
Even with announcements and signs on buses that remind riders to properly cover their noses and mouths, some riders are not embracing the message.
“It’s no respect for everyone else on the bus when someone doesn’t wear a mask,” said Mary Judge, 71, who rides the Bx15 in The Bronx. “It’s like people don’t care.”