Driving such strong compliance wasn’t concern of being denied a ride, passengers said, but respect and fear of the coronavirus, which is killing family members, friends, businesses and jobs.
When the pandemic hit, Daniel Crook said, he lost his job as a retail worker.
Depressed and in debt, “I was at my lowest,” he said last week as waited for a train at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. Eventually, the Southeast D.C. resident was able to get a job as a cleaner.
The work is seven days a week, but Crook, 25, said he considers himself lucky. The position also came with an unlimited supply of gloves and masks to protect the one thing those living on razor-thin margins rely on more than anything: their health.
It’s serious business, Metro passenger Dominic Davis said through a black felt mask, well-creased from repeated use, as he waited for a bus outside the Anacostia Metro station.
“I’m keeping it real. Some people thought it was a joke,” Davis, 34, said. “But life is too short. We have to take this seriously. If they say wear a mask, then wear a mask.”
Before, Metro had encouraged riders to cover their faces, but the transit agency strengthened its policy about the same time D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ordered masks be worn inside all open businesses and during “essential travel,” including public transit, except in rare instances when no one else is around.
Montgomery County RideOn last month was among the first in the Washington region to require face coverings; the Fairfax Connector, Virginia’s largest public bus system, also made it policy starting Monday.
Mandatory mask policies have resulted in controversy and ugly confrontations in some cities. Officers in New York wrestled a mother to the ground and arrested her in front of her 5-year-old at a subway station because they said she refused to wear her mask properly and threatened to cough on them. In Philadelphia last month, officers dragged a rider off a bus because he wasn’t wearing a mask. The case prompted the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority to lift its mandatory mask order.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said transit police will not aggressively enforce the requirement, cognizant of the high-profile clashes elsewhere. He told the Metro board this month that the agency wasn’t “looking to write tickets.” Metro instead hopes riders will comply out of a sense of communal responsibility.
Metro Transit police have not issued any tickets nor made any arrests for violations of the policy since it started, spokesman Dan Stessel said Friday evening. Police received a total of six calls reporting people not wearing masks last week.
“There has been no enforcement activity — no citations or arrests — and officers are finding a very high rate of compliance, so we want to thank our customers for that,” Stessel said. “As was the case Monday, what we’ve found during the week is that when someone isn’t wearing a face covering, it’s usually because they [have one and just] forgot to put it on.
“It remains our goal to get everyone on board [to comply] with the face covering policy because it’s the right thing to do,” he added, but said Metro does not want to do so “through fines or other enforcement action.”
Stessel said transit police should soon have masks to hand out to riders who say they can’t buy or find them.
Although Maryland and Virginia have lifted some business and social gathering restrictions, the District’s restrictions remain in place until June 8, and Metro has not seen a noticeable ridership increase. Rail passenger trips remained 94 percent below pre-pandemic levels last week, while Metrobus trips were down 70 percent. Ridership has not moved much from these depressed levels since late March.
Unions for transportation workers have been demanding mandatory mask policies for riders since the death of Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove on April 1. Hargrove’s death became a rallying cry for transit workers seeking better protective equipment. Hargrove died about a week and a half after he posted a video on Facebook complaining about a passenger on his bus who was coughing repeatedly and not wearing a mask.
At Metro, 100 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, two of whom are hospitalized; 52 have returned to work.
Eric Colts, a friend and co-worker of Hargrove, testified Thursday on behalf of front-line workers at a House select subcommittee hearing on the coronavirus crisis.
“The biggest fear for me while I’m driving, trying to pay attention to the road, is you’ll have someone in the back who’ll then sneeze or cough,” Colts said. “And if you’ve ever been on a city bus on public transportation, we look at it as a 40-foot incubator. You have no way of practicing social distancing on a coach.”
While transit agencies have stopped front-door boarding to limit drivers’ exposure to passengers and also roped off the first few rows of seats closest to drivers, restricting where passengers sit “never works because you still have people that are actually coming out with no masks,” Colts told lawmakers.
White House guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help states reopen and recover from the pandemic do not recommend transit agencies make masks mandatory. Instead, they say transit systems should post signs and remind riders of the importance of covering their faces.
At least one study has questioned the effectiveness of mask policies without enforcement.
A 2009 study by researchers in Mexico, Australia and England reviewed compliance with a Mexico City order requiring masks on transit during a flu outbreak. Researchers found that a strategy of urging riders to cover their faces works best when people believe that wearing masks is an effective deterrent to illness and when they trust their government. Mandates work when they come with enforcement and penalties, as well as political support, researchers found. Policy success also depends on the availability of masks. In Mexico City — as in the initial weeks of the pandemic here — masks were scarce. “Under such settings, mobilizing the population against pandemics is difficult in the best of times,” the study said.
Metro passengers have various reasons for complying with the new policy. Among those interviewed, none involved the influence of politicians or trust in Metro.
Sharlene Parker, 63, who was at the Ballston Metro station on her way home to Southeast D.C. after her shift at the Home Depot in Falls Church, said she wears her disposable mask for the “safety” it provides.
Vanessa Ramirez, 28, who was sitting on a bench at Ballston, wearing blue scrubs and heading home to Woodbridge after her shift at an animal hospital, said she wears hers because it’s also important for others.
“I started to see more people wearing it, so I started wearing it, as well,” she said. “I guess it’s for our own safety and everyone else.”
Joseph Boykin, 40, a waste-management worker who was wearing a blue-pinstriped cloth mask, said he does so to protect his parents, who have diabetes, and his two children, who have asthma. He doesn’t enjoy how the mask inhibits his breathing and creates a less personal world but said wearing one is the right thing to do.
“If this is what we have to do in order to keep everyone safe and I guess keep the spread of disease down, then that’s what we have to do,” said Boykin, who lives in Brandywine, Md., as he stood at the Anacostia Metro station waiting for a train to meet up with his sons.
“It’s tough to breathe with that on your face sometimes,” he said. “I had to go to the bank yesterday, and [the teller] had a mask on. I had a mask on. She has gloves on. And it makes things, like, less personal.”
Nevertheless, he said it makes him think when he sees others not wearing masks.
“Did you already have the virus and now you’re not worried about catching it?” Boykin said. “Or do you just not care? Because, you know, the mask, it’s not for me. It’s for me not to spread something to you, you know? So if you do it, and then I do it, it keeps everyone safe.”
Ranmone Tolbert, 29, would be one of those people Boykin wonders about.
Standing at a bus stop in Southeast D.C., Tolbert said he wasn’t forgoing a mask because he didn’t care. He just forgot it while rushing out the door from his home in Anacostia. He said he usually does have one on.
“I left mine in the house. I was rushing to get out,” he said. “Sometimes it slips my mind.”
He pointed out that 2020 has presented Americans with an existence no one expected. Covering your face just to go outside or ride the bus?
“It doesn’t really seem like it’s true,” he said.
The moment health officials began recommending facial coverings, Crook, the cleaner, began looking for masks but couldn’t find any. He said he got lucky when someone at a tattoo parlor heard him talking about his search. The person went upstairs and returned with a mask for him.
“I was wearing a mask before anybody was wearing one,” he said. “When I first got a mask, a lot of people were telling me, ‘You don’t have to wear it.’ I just want to be on the safe side.”
Unemployed at the time, Crook lost his job at T.J. Maxx because the pandemic had closed retail stores. He couldn’t afford to buy masks, so he kept wearing the disposable one he had been given at the tattoo parlor.
Standing at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station last week, he stared at the blue screen of the cellphone his boss had given him while he waited for a train to take him to his last office cleaning job for the day.
In his arm was a white paper bag filled with free lunch and dinner from a church he had walked by that was handing out food.
He usually carries extra masks in a backpack, and he avoids the back seats on buses and Metro, knowing they fill up first. He uses the sleeves of his shirt to grab railings or open doors, he said.
It’s only been a few weeks since he’s been back on his feet, and he can’t afford to be out sick.
“If I’m too close to someone and they don’t have a mask on, I’m worried,” Crook said. “When I hear them coughing, even though every cough is not a corona cough, I’m worried. I don’t know who you are. You don’t know who I am.”