RTS union chief wants better enforcement of face mask guidelines for bus passengers

Regional Transit Service has taken steps in recent weeks to try to protect employees and riders from the spread of coronavirus, but the president of the union representing RTS workers says more needs to be done.

"They're allowing people to ride without face coverings," said Jacques Chapman, president of Local 282 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. "I've spoken to RTS. They feel like the police department's not going to enforce this, which I believe they are required to."

RTS CEO Bill Carpenter said that while Governor Andrew Cuomo did issue an executive order about wearing face masks, there are no criminal or civil penalties, which would make it more difficult for police to enforce.

Francis Camp, a spokesperson for the Rochester Police Department said in a statement, that the department recognizes it’s responsibility to enforce New York state’s mask mandate and will respond to offer support if called to do so, but that each situation must be handled on a case by case basis.  

Camp said RPD will make every effort to appeal to people’s common sense, but issuing summonses or arresting individuals will be an absolute last resort.

According to Chapman, two bus operators represented by the union tested positive for COVID-19 and were hospitalized.

He said other drivers had symptoms of the virus, but were never tested.

"We kind of had a rash of operators being sick about three weeks ago," Chapman said. "Back then, there weren't many steps being taken and since then, RTS has done many things to make it better."

In an effort to allow for social distancing, RTS requires most passengers to board and exit buses at the rear door. Passengers who have mobility issues, requiring the use of a wheelchair or a walker, for instance may still use the front door.

The transit service says the primary point of physical proximity between drivers and passengers occurs at the fare box.  That risk has been temporarily eliminated by the waiving of fares. RTS announced on Wednesday that this has been extended through May 15.

The transit company also limits the number of passengers who can ride a bus at any one time to 15, but the union wants to reduce that to 10 passengers for the typical, 40 foot buses. RTS said ridership is down by more 50 percent.

Carpenter said that even with the drop in passengers, “We’re still having very significant ridership , about 20,000, 22,000 customers a day. And what we’re seeing is at peak times, we need more than one bus to keep it to the 15. To the extent we can have the resources to keep it to 10, we would like to do that.”

Chapman said most, but not all RTS passengers are covering their face.

"But, it's very frequent...I don't know if it's every trip, but it's very frequent that there are people on the bus with no mask," he said. "It only takes one person without a mask to be on the bus, to spread this."

He wants RTS to allow bus operators to enforce the use of masks.

"Just like we do with people smoking cigarettes or if someone doesn't have a shirt on or shoes on.  You just don't open the doors and you don't let them on," Chapman said. "Police aren't needed for something like that."

Chapman also suggested that anyone without a mask should not be allowed to enter the Transit Center.

"RTS operators and cleaners and mechanics are going to still be coming to work and providing an essential service for our public. We're very proud they're doing that," he said.  "We just need to make it safe for them."

Carpenter said that there are masks available at the Transit Center downtown for people who need them. He said if bus riders arrive there and don’t have a mask, an RTS staffer will encourage them to get one. 

“So there’s a lot of education that needs to happen and we’re doing a lot of that education on the bus; we have announcements on the bus, information at the Transit Center, and again, now we have something to cover their nose and mouth at the transit center,” Carpenter said.

Cuomo signed an executive order on April 16 requiring all New Yorkers to wear masks or face coverings on public transportation systems or when they are passengers in private, for-hire vehicles.

People who cannot cover their face due to a medical condition are exempt from the order, as are children under the age of 2.