Philly’s coronavirus response

Are SEPTA riders wearing face masks? We rode bus, trolley and subway to find out

Face coverings are now required, but police will not enforce the rule.

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Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
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Philly moved into the yellow phase at the end of last week, and SEPTA resumed a near-normal schedule on city transit. More people are riding to work, and non-essential travel is back on the table.

So is the requirement to cover your face when you ride.

The last time SEPTA required face masks for riders, it reversed the policy after just a couple of days. The shift was a response to backlash after a video of Philadelphia police officers forcibly removing a mask-less man from a Route 23 bus went viral.

This time around, Philly’s transit authority has decided to keep the police out of it.

“We want to try if at all possible to avoid any kind of situation like that,” said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch. “Nobody is going to be fined or cited or have the police called.”

What does that mean in practice? We took a trip around the city to find out.

On Wednesday, a Route 47 bus was full nearly to its coronavirus-limited capacity of 20 people. It had signs on every other seat instructing people to socially distance. Almost everyone was wearing a mask or some kind of covering (the new policy makes clear that a bandana or t-shirt is ok).

Trolley conditions were similar, with almost all passengers wearing masks and observing seat restrictions. On the Route 34 line, some even donned disposable gloves. In several hours of riding, only a couple of people boarded buses or trolleys without one.

But PPE use seems less widespread on the subway, where there isn’t a conductor on each car to remind people.

Aboard multiple BSL and MFL cars, Billy Penn observed around a quarter of people without masks at any given time — either because they weren’t wearing them at all, or because they had pulled them down to have a conversation or a snack.

Covering your face when in an enclosed space or near others to mitigate COVID-19 spread is widely recommended as economies begin reopening. It’s included in guidance issued by the CDC as well as the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia health departments.

And most SEPTA riders were already wearing masks before it became a formal rule again this week, per Busch.

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Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Pick up free masks at three Center City platforms

One bus driver said he can tell people already know they’re supposed to be wearing masks. If they board without one, they’ll feign surprise when he tells them they need a mask — the same way they often do when their Key cards are out of fare.

Still, the driver said he’s not going to enforce the mandate too heavily. Not after what happened a few months ago. He’ll just keep wearing his mask.

“I’m wearing mine ’cause I want to live as long as I can,” the driver said.

On the trains, signage “urged” customers to wear masks. Still, folks leaned across aisles, pulling down face coverings to speak to each other or eat their lunch onboard.

And while the subway seats featured the same signs encouraging social distancing, people sat closer together. Plenty of people waited in close proximity at the 15th Street Station platform — a decent amount without masks or wearing them low on their chins.

It’s tough to make sure people follow the rules on the subway without a SEPTA staffer on each platform or car. More signs are coming, spokesperson Busch said.

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Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

For now, SEPTA’s still sanitizing its vehicles twice daily. If you need a mask, you can pick one up for free at three Center City locations:

  • City Hall Station
  • Jefferson Station
  • Suburban Station

Other options are being considered, if resources can be found, like giving masks out on trains, or deploying a staffer to walk the cars and remind people.

“In terms of personnel, we have to make sure we have enough coverage for core duties,” Busch said. “Right now, we don’t have [a] full workforce.”

One thing remains clear: police citations will not be handed out..

Said Busch: “There wouldn’t be any good outcome from having a situation like that.”

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Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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Tagged

Health, Transit, SEPTA