Silicon Valley’s VTA ends COVID-19 mask requirement
A VTA light rail train at the Santa Teresa station. Photo by Robert Eliason.

VTA is ending the COVID-19 mask requirement on its buses and light rail trains, making it one of the first major Bay Area transit agencies to change course.

Agency officials announced the end of the mask mandate Wednesday, though strongly recommend passengers and employees wear masks aboard buses, light rail or paratransit vehicles. The agency ended its nearly two-year policy days after a federal court struck down the national mandate requiring masks on public transit and airplanes.

The decision sets VTA apart from several other major Bay Area transit agencies that are still requiring masks. As of Wednesday morning, BART, Caltrain and MUNI still require masks. AC Transit has also dropped its mask requirement.

“Public health experts still recommend wearing face masks in a variety of settings, including mass transit,” VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross said in a statement, adding the agency is in the process of removing signage about masks from its vehicles.

According to an internal memo sent to employees Wednesday, masks are still required for workers if they’re in a conference room and not able to maintain six feet of separation; in-person trainings; driving in non-revenue vehicles such as vans or if they’ve been identified as part of an “exposed group.”

The decision is being met with mixed reactions. John Courtney, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, told San José Spotlight he welcomes VTA ending the mask requirement. He noted that during the pandemic, VTA drivers had to enforce the mandate, which led to some being physically assaulted by non-compliant passengers.

“I’m glad they’re doing it now because the operator of a bus or train should not have to fight with a passenger over a mask, and if they do, they should get full support from the agency,” Courtney said. He added his bigger concern is the April 29 deadline for all VTA employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19, noting about 400 ATU members still aren’t fully vaccinated.

One VTA worker told San José Spotlight they agree with the agency’s decision to end the mandate. Others who requested anonymity to speak freely said they were shocked and uncomfortable by the policy change.

“Yesterday people were getting suspended for not wearing masks, now it’s lifted,” one bus driver told San José Spotlight. “I’m still going to wear mine because (COVID-19) isn’t over—it’s still out there.”

Another driver told San José Spotlight passengers can expect to see many operators taking off their masks. This driver, however, wants to keep wearing a mask because ridership has been increasing over the last few weeks, and is concerned about new COVID variants.

“I personally will continue to wear a mask for myself, just for my own protection, if nothing else,” the driver said. “There’s just too much uncertainty right now.”

Risks still exist

George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco, told San José Spotlight the federal court’s ruling against the mask requirement addresses a procedural issue, not a public health one, and he sees it as a risk to not wear a mask on public transit.

“We are seeing a resurgence of the BA.2 variant,” Rutherford said, referring to a sub-variant of omicron that appeared in Santa Clara County earlier this year. Rutherford noted BA.2 isn’t causing infections like the delta or omicron variant, but still poses a threat. “These are very transmissible variants, and believe me, you don’t want to have symptomatic COVID, you don’t want to have long COVID.”

Santa Clara County has seen a significant reduction in COVID-19 infections since the peak of the omicron outbreak in January. As of Tuesday, the county’s seven-day rolling average of new infections is 228. About 91% of county residents over the age of five are fully vaccinated, and nearly 70% of residents over the age of 12 have received at least one booster shot.

The end of the mask requirement also poses concerns for vulnerable groups who rely on public transit, such as people who are immunocompromised, people with disabilities and seniors. Aaron Morrow, chair of VTA’s Committee for Transportation Mobility and Accessibility, told San José Spotlight he’s immunocompromised and probably won’t take public transit as much because of this decision. He said he’s spoken to some seniors who also share similar concerns.

“There needs to be a level of reassurance from VTA,” Morrow said, adding it would help if VTA held public meetings to reassure people with disabilities and seniors that the agency is taking steps to make sure they’re still safe on public transit. “I think that would lend a little credence to making us feel safe, or some reassurance that they’re still doing the cleaning and following those protocols.”

Eugene Bradley, a transit advocate and founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users, told San José Spotlight he’s concerned VTA and other transit agencies didn’t coordinate their decision to end or maintain mask mandates.

“It’s what I would call mask confusion, because you have different transit agencies with different policies—this is going to confuse people, especially if they have to different agencies for their trips,” Bradley said.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

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