Additional reporting by Jose Martinez

The MTA announced on Sept. 7 that New Yorkers could now choose to wear a mask or not on public transit, lifting the requirement on subways, buses and Access-A-Ride vehicles after the mandate was ended by Gov. Kathy Hochul the same day.

New subway and bus signs and the MTA’s social media accounts encouraged but no longer insisted on masking, telling riders “You Do You” and reusing the images from earlier signs showing the proper way to wear a mask. 

But immunocompromised New Yorkers say that messaging is confusing and a danger to their health. 

At the MTA’s board meeting on Wednesday, several advocates for New Yorkers with disabilities spoke out against the lifting of the mask mandate on public transportation. 

Joe Rappaport, the executive director of Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, shared the story of a woman named Lisa Smid during his comments to emphasize the importance of masking for immunocompromised and disabled transit riders. 

According to Rappaport, Smid lost her partner, Benjamin Schaeffer, an MTA worker exposed to the coronavirus. 

“Ben would have had much to say about this, but he can’t. He’s dead,” Rappaport said, reading prepared comments from Smid, who was unable to attend the meeting. 

In April, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Florida struck down the federal mask mandate for airplanes and mass transit — although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend, but not enforce, their use.

Scared to Leave Home

Holding the now-defunct signs carrying the MTA’s stricter messaging about masks, members of BCID, the Center for Independence of the Disabled New York, and others spoke about the direct impact that lifting the mandate will have. 

“What can we do? How can people stay in their house all the time? We need it. How can we get around in public transportation all the time?” Jean Ryan, president of Disabled in Action, asked the MTA board. 

Several others spoke about the impact that a lack of masking already has on their lives, with many attending the meeting remotely out of fear of spreading the virus to immunocompromised loved ones at home. 

“My husband has stage-four cancer. He’s undergoing chemo at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I would love to take a private car service, but you could imagine I have mounting bills, even with insurance,” said Lisa Gesson, one of the virtual attendees and the operations manager of BCID. 

But the transit agency was following in the footsteps of Hochul, who followed the guidance of  the federal CDC in stating that masks are encouraged, but no longer required, on public transit. 

“I know for many it became second nature, but it’s always been a visible reminder that something is not normal here, and it was there for the right reason: it protected health,” the governor said in a news conference announcing the end of the mandate on Sept. 7.

Dr. Mary Bassett, the state’s health commissioner, has also said that while the mandate has been dropped, residents should still keep an eye on case numbers to make sure they are not at risk of spreading the virus. 

From a public health perspective, though, masks can continue to stabilize case numbers and specifically protect immunocompromised, disabled riders. 

While “one-way masking,” or just having yourself protected while others aren’t masked, can be effective for people in enclosed spaces, CDC guidance for immunocompromised and disabled people depends on local case numbers and risk levels. 

“When case numbers are high, and yes, they are still high, we need to take care of each other,” microbiologist Lucky Tran said in public comments made during the MTA’s board meeting. 

Tran, also a public health communicator at Columbia University who works in medical centers attached to the university, added that mask mandates work because they not only prevent vulnerable riders from spreading the virus, but help to contain the virus in enclosed spaces like Access-A-Ride vehicles. 

“What I’ve heard in my circles is that people are putting off health care because people are having trouble getting drivers to mask up and wind their windows down. It’s been a constant problem,” said Tran. 

Access-A-Ride, which many disabled and immunocompromised riders use specifically to get around the city, has seen the largest ridership increase of any public transportation option, with ridership above 80% of pre-pandemic levels last week.

A ‘Light-Hearted Approach’

MTA CEO Janno Lieber addressed the concerns of disabled transit riders during the Q&A after the board meeting.

“We follow public health authorities’ guidance. So a decision about masks — it was determined when the federal government took off the mask requirement, then the state, then the governor. So, we’re not an independent public health expert, we don’t make our own decisions on that. We follow public health rules,” said Lieber. 

He did express sympathy towards “vulnerable” riders who may not “appreciate” the agency’s new signage about masking, but said the point was to reduce confusion about what was required and what was not on subways and buses, where masking levels had declined dramatically even before the mandate was lifted. 

Lieber acknowledged that the “You Do You” messaging had been problematic for some riders.

“When the masking requirement was removed, our goal was really to minimize conflict,” he said. “Because conflict about masking has been a feature of mass transit in New York for a little while now.

“And we wanted to minimize it, that was why we pursued that light-hearted approach,” he added, “I’m very respectful of those who didn’t appreciate it … it’s appearing a lot less.”