Within a month of the world learning that a deadly virus had broken out in Wuhan, the Chinese government closed all transportation into and out of the city.
But it was too late. COVID-19 had already affected travel via air and rail.
The lockdowns and stay-at-home orders instituted by most countries resulted in ridership drops of as much as 90 percent. Today, as countries begin to relax restrictions, transit systems are promising riders clean and disinfected stations and equipment, opportunities to social distance, and mandatory masking.
But masks have become a battleground. Enforcement has led to assaults on police and transit workers who are forced to confront those unwilling to comply.
Adherence to mask requirements has differed across nations. In June 2020, when restrictions were new and fears were high, France reported almost 80 percent of people voluntarily wore masks; as did around 70 percent of Americans.
Yet, according to the Royal Society of London, only about 25 percent of Britons did. This led Graham Vidler, chief executive of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, to worry that when masks became mandatory patrons might intervene if others ignored the rules, particularly since children under 11 and those with certain medical conditions were exempt.
While the police do not have the authority in England and Wales to enforce mask wearing in public, they are empowered to enforce masking requirements on public transport, generally ejecting passengers who refuse to comply.
Enforcement problems came quickly.
Within five months, the UK Police Federation, which represents police officers, found that 55 percent of officers had been physically assaulted, including being spat at or coughed on as a deliberate threat of COVID infection. Recently, police in Wales also reported being coughed on and spat at.
Police are not the only victims. A National Health Service (NHS) track-and-trace worker on a London bus was beaten unconscious when, police believe, an unmasked rider took offense that he moved away.
At the time, according to The Guardian, a survey of 800 train, bus and tram riders in Manchester, London, and in Glasgow (Scotland), indicated that fewer than four in 10 people were wearing masks, with young and middle-aged men the least likely to wear them.
During the height of the lockdown, the Police Foundation, the UK’s policing think tank, found that a quarter of adults were ignoring restricted movement rules and that upward of three-quarters were not following social isolating rules.
The lack of compliance makes it difficult for police to follow the approach developed by the National Police Chiefs Council and the College of Policing around the “4E’s”: Engage, Explain, Encourage and, only in the last resort, Enforce.
Policing Masks Endangers Drivers
In France, where masks are also required on public transport, a bus driver was beaten to death in July in the city of Bayonne after asking a group of young men to put on masks. The 59-year-old driver, a married father of three, was pushed out of his bus, kicked, and punched; he was unconscious when police arrived.
The men were charged with murder after the driver was removed from life support.
Although the French Interior Minister promised new measures to protect drivers, the assaults have continued. Only three days later, a drunk passenger attacked a 52-year-old female driver who asked him to wear a mask. Already serving a suspended prison sentence, he was sentenced to four months in prison.
Shortly thereafter, two newspapers, Le Parisien and ACTU, noted that nearly daily summer attacks on bus drivers were mostly over patrons refusing to wear masks.
In Romania, the Bucharest Public Transport Police are issuing fines to those not in compliance with subway travel requirements to wear a mask. Turkey also imposes fines, but has tried to minimize enforcement by installing mask cams at bus stops. The cameras capture the faces of mask violators and displays their photos on the bus shelter screens in the belief that they will be embarrassed into compliance.
India also requires passengers to wear masks on its extensive national railway and urban transit systems. On some routes, patrons are required to arrive with COVID test results or undergo screening at the station. To minimize crowding on the often-packed trains, “Please Do Not Sit Here” signs remind commuters to maintain social distancing.
In Germany, police prevented hundreds of thousands of protestors from storming the parliament building in Berlin in August. The protest against wearing masks and other measures intended to stop the spread of the virus, reminded many of the storming of the Reichstag in 1933, a key event in establishing the Nazi government, and may have foreshadowed the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Bus drivers in Germany’s largest city have protested the COVID-related death of a colleague and have voiced concern over lax cleanliness and mask enforcement standards. It is the drivers’ responsibility to enforce the rules, yet they have no recourse against violators.
Rail patrons also ignore the requirement. By the end of 2020, the federal police, who patrol the railways recorded more than 200,000 incidents of people caught on trains or in stations without face masks.
The unions representing bus, train and tram workers in Belgium, where anyone over 12 must wear a mask on transit, have voiced similar concerns over enforcement. They want undercover officers to be assigned so that patrons do not simply put a mask on when they see uniformed officers.
An unusual arrest involved an intoxicated rail rider who pulled down his mask, licked his fingers and wiped mucus on the car’s pole, resulting in the entire train being taken out of service.
Who’s Responsible for Enforcement?
Enforcement presents particular problems in the U.S., where transit policing is highly decentralized―unlike the UK, where the British Transport Police (BTP) is a centralized force responsible for transit policing in England, Scotland and Wales, or in many countries where transit systems are patrolled by national or state police.
Few but the largest U.S. transit systems have their own police; most rely on private security or local police or sheriffs’ departments to respond to criminal activity.
Yet on Jan. 21, one day after he was sworn in, President Joe Biden issued Executive Order 13998, mandating masks on all forms of transit. On Jan. 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued 11 pages of specifications, followed two days later by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Directive 1582/84-21-01, outlining fines for travelers who refuse to wear masks in airports, bus and rail stations, and while aboard planes, buses and trains.
Fines begin at $250 for the first offense and range up to $1,500 for repeat offenses.
The requirement was not new. All transit systems had previously instituted mask mandates as a condition of receiving Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.
Although systems and operator unions voiced support for the federal intervention, there is little muscle behind the change. TSA will not enforce the requirement; transit employees must report violators. This will undercut its effectiveness except for the airlines, whose employees are able to call police assigned to airports to remove recalcitrant passengers.
However, the need to police airport boarding areas raises questions as to how unmasked individuals passed TSA security checkpoints.
Fewer Riders, More Danger
Rail and bus facilities rarely have protected checkpoints. Operators are generally the only line of defense against mask violators. Around the country, they have been subjected to ethnic slurs, spat and coughed on, and subjected to physical assault.
Even with ridership down 70 percent in the New York City subway system, city transit workers reported 58 assaults between July and the end of 2020. An updated list of subway and bus incidents reported by transit workers between August 2020 and March 2021 lists more than 60 assaults and around 1,000 instances of being verbally threatened, harassed or spit on.
A bill currently in the New York State Legislature would amend the penal law to define spitting on, kicking, or shoving, or having other physical contact with a transit worker as a misdemeanor crime of aggravated assault.
Assaults and harassment are occurring around the country. Last year, in Baltimore, a 51-year-old bus driver was shot and killed after chasing a rider he had asked to leave his bus. One day later, a Maryland Transit Administration police officer was assaulted and left unconscious in a subway station.
This year, after a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) bus driver confronted two mask-less teenagers and made them leave her bus, she discovered them hiding behind a car waiting for her at the end of her route. She locked the bus and called SEPTA’s transit police. The youths fled.
As in New York, assaults and verbal harassment of SEPTA employees have increased despite an almost 80 percent decline in ridership.
Trying to explain these types of dangers to members of the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who were conducting a hearing optimistically titled “Protecting Transportation Workers and Passengers from COVID: Gaps in Safety, Lessons Learned and Next Steps,” a bus driver from Orlando counted nine bus operators who were attacked for asking passengers to wear masks.
Amid fears of a third virus wave, renewed lockdowns in Europe, and the predictions by many virus experts that people may be wearing masks in public until at least the end of 2021, it appears that transit operators won’t be able to retire their roles as mask police anytime soon.
And as more vaccinated people question the need for masks, and as the number of public transit patrons increases, so will the number of mask-less patrons.
Dorothy Moses Schulz, Ph.D., is an emerita professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and a retired MTA-Metro North Railroad Police captain. She has served transit agencies across the country as a safety and security consultant. Gareth Bryon is a former Detective Chief Superintendent who worked as a senior officer in the South Wales Police and the British Transport Police, where he led major crime investigation and forensic science services for over 30 years.