Mask mandate on public transit not always followed or enforced in Chicago

“We wish that everyone would comply with the president’s order, but we know that’s not how it’s going to work,” said Keith Hill, president of Local 241 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents bus employees.

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People board a Red Line train at the CTA’s Wilson station in Uptown on the North Side, Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 3, 2021.

People — some masked, some not — board a Red Line train at the CTA’s Wilson station in Uptown on Wednesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The man who boarded the train at the Wilson Red Line stop wasn’t wearing a mask — not even one slung loosely around his neck.

He paid no attention to social distancing rules, holding onto a pole and standing less than six feet from another, masked passenger. His behavior drew anxious stares from other passengers.

“Why are you staring at me?” the unmasked man said at one point. “I can see you staring at me.”

The man was one of several passengers seen not wearing a mask during an hourlong trip from the Howard Street station to downtown this week — despite the ubiquitous signs reminding riders to do so, per Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order.

The situation is often even worse on CTA buses, and it’s why bus and train operators are applauding the new federal mask requirement for travelers on public transportation and airplanes — but also wondering what good it does without strict enforcement.

“We are ecstatic about the president stepping up. ... It’s been an ongoing problem since the pandemic,” said Keith Hill, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 241, which represents bus employees.

People wait to board a Blue Line train at the CTA’s Clark/Lake station in the Loop, Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 3, 2021.

People wait to board a Blue Line train at the CTA’s Clark/Lake station in the Loop on Wednesday afternoon.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Hill said he’s heard complaints of passengers spitting at drivers who dare remind them they must wear a mask. So the union advises drivers not to confront passengers and that, Hill says, is what the CTA also recommends.

“We are constantly looking over our shoulders,” Hill said.

When drivers call police to resolve a situation, it brings its own set of problems, Hill said.

“It’s a time-consuming thing because they don’t come right away,” he said. “You might spend 30 minutes sitting there. Now you are opening yourself up to other things.”

What’s needed, Hill said, are dedicated officers to handle enforcement.

The Transportation Security Administration, according to a Jan. 31 “security directive,” appears to be the agency responsible for handling any “significant security concern,” but it’s not clear how that works in practice.

But Jessica Mayle, a regional spokeswoman for the TSA, said in an email: “Local law enforcement would be the first contact to handle issues on local Chicago transportation. This federal requirement reinforces preexisting local efforts.”

Eric Dixon, president of ATU Local 308, which represents CTA train operators, said a federal mandate won’t change much.

“All [operators] can do is ask,” Dixon said. “We’re not the police or anything, so we can’t make people put on a mask.”

The CTA issued a statement saying it is “revising its extensive messaging to reflect that the mask requirement is also now a federal mandate. Our website, onboard and platform announcements will also be updated.The CTA is working with transit agencies across the country to get further guidance and clarification” from federal agencies.

The CTA added that it will report incidents to the TSA, as outlined in the guidelines.

Bob Guy is state legislative director for SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, which represents Metra conductors. The mandate is something “we absolutely welcome and hope all passengers take to heart,” Guy said.

“From what I hear from our folks ... the overwhelming majority of Metra ridership is more than happy to wear their masks,” he said.

But he’s concerned about enforcement when a passenger won’t wear a mask.

“Other passengers are going to look to the conductor or onboard personnel to try to enforce that, and there’s simply nothing we can do about that. That’s left up to the owner/operators, which in this case would be Metra,” Guy said.

Michael Gillis, a Metra spokesman, said compliance with the state mask mandate has been “extremely high.” He said Metra has relied on an “educational” approach rather than kicking noncompliant passengers off trains.

“At this point, we are hoping we will continue to see voluntary compliance without the need for increased enforcement. We are not expecting TSA agents to be on our trains,” Gillis said.

Passengers at the CTA Red Line stop at Lake Street. New federal health orders from the CDC require masks on public transit.

Passengers at the CTA Red Line stop at Lake Street. New federal health orders from the CDC require masks on public transit, but a ride on the Red Line on Tuesday found no CTA workers specifically enforcing the rule, which was not always obeyed.

Isabelle Sarraf/Sun-Times

During Tuesday’s CTA Red Line ride from Howard Street to Chicago Avenue, most passengers donned face coverings — surgical masks, cloth, even some N95 masks, with some opting for double masks, as is now suggested. But a handful left masks below their nose or chin or took them off to eat.

Cars were nearly empty, with perhaps half a dozen riders per car during various rides Tuesday afternoon. Most spread out, as is urged on window stickers reminding passengers to socially distance from other commuters.

At Argyle, a maskless man sat on the train feet away from a CTA worker who had her back to him.

At the Fullerton platform, one CTA worker wore no mask, one wore his mask below his chin and another had his below his nose.

Hidden behind a billboard, one rider moved her mask below her chin to speak on the phone while another nearby did the same to smoke.

While no maskless riders were seen going through turnstiles onto the platform by CTA workers, only one maskless man was confronted during the trip — and by a fellow passenger, not a CTA worker.

A sign at the CTA Red Line station at Lake Street in the Loop on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 urges riders to wear face masks.

A sign at the CTA Red Line station at Lake Street in the Loop urges riders to wear face masks.

Isabelle Sarraf/Sun-Times

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