One of the last remnants of the Bay Area’s pandemic-era lockdowns – BART’s mandatory face covering policy – could become a relic after agency leaders voted to effectively end the mandate after Oct. 1.
In an 8-1 vote Thursday evening, the board of directors handed over future masking authority to Robert Powers, BART’s general manager. Starting next month, Powers will be authorized to renew a mask mandate only if certain conditions are met, including COVID-19 cases surging locally or nationwide, or if mask mandates are reinstated in any of the five Bay Area counties in which BART operates.
“None of those conditions are currently being met,” said Alicia Trost, a BART spokesperson. “Something could change in the next few days, but that’s extremely unlikely.”
Thursday’s vote – coming at the board’s first in-person meeting since March 2020 – is BART’s fifth masking policy change since April.
BART has been grappling with the mandate issue since a Florida court voided President Joe Biden’s federal mask requirement. While most other agencies dropped face covering requirements, BART – a rare transit operator with an elected board of directors – has been receptive to the plight of its elderly and immunocompromised passengers.
But the agency has also chafed at enforcing a mask requirement while every Bay Area county ditched most mandatory mask policies months ago. Only one other Bay Area bus operator — East Bay’s AC Transit — still requires masks. New York recently switched to a masks-optional policy on its crowded subways and Los Angeles may also end masking mandates on public transit this month.
“While I plan to continue to mask on BART probably for the foreseeable future our compliance has gotten worse and worse,” said Rebecca Saltzman, BART’s board president. “And I think it’s challenging to uphold the requirement that so many people are flouting.”
Regardless of masking policies, BART riders are increasingly leaving face coverings at home. According to a mask count conducted by the agency, 85% of riders wore a mask in late August compared to 97% in January. While BART’s masking policy is mandatory, passengers who don’t cover up face little to no repercussions.
Director John McPartland, whose district includes Livermore, Dublin, and Pleasanton, was the lone vote against giving the general manager authority over masking. He cited masking recommendations on transit by public health officials.
“Why would we end up giving up our responsibility?” McPartland said. “The general manager is responsible for the operation of a public service. . . policy lies with this board of directors.”
Director Janice Li of San Francisco, who voted in favor of the new policy, said maintaining the status quo mandate is ineffective. “If I thought that a mask mandate would lead to compliance, I would vote to continue extending it at this time,” she said. But staking a lone mask requirement without the backing of Bay Area health officials makes “meaningful compliance” with a mandate “impossible,” she said.
During the Thursday meeting, BART directors heard a flood of public comments in favor of keeping a mandate. Commenters said BART should be prioritizing its most medically vulnerable passengers. They argued that already low mask compliance was sure to drop without a requirement in place.
“It’s an unfair burden placed on you all to stand strong and continue to display moral clarity,” a commenter with Senior and Disability Action, an advocacy group, who gave her name as Sarah, said. “Do the right thing and keep staying on the right side of history.”