Out of step with Philly policy, SEPTA drops its mask requirement

SEPTA in line with transit agencies, out of step with Philly

When the federal court order was released Monday morning, transit authorities across the country announced how they would respond.

Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and most major airlines announced they were lifting the mandate. Ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft also both announced that masks would now be optional. But New York City’s transit authority, MTA, announced it would be keeping its requirement in place. Chicago did the same.

The MTA’s rule is governed by a state ordinance, requiring masks to be worn in transportation hubs and modes of public transit as well as health care settings, adult care facilities, correctional facilities, and homeless shelters. That ordinance remains in effect.

SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch explained SEPTA’s decision to drop the mask requirement as an employee-safety issue.

β€œThe responsibility for reminding customers about the federal mask requirement has largely been on SEPTA’s frontline workers,” he wrote in an email. “Without that, we would expect more people to challenge employees for simply relaying that message, and we want to avoid the possibility that those situations could escalate further.”

When asked why it would be more difficult for SEPTA employees to enforce a city policy than a federal one, Busch explained that as a regional public transportation agency, SEPTA follows federal rules and guidance.

Conflicting messages confuse and undermine, experts say

Receiving conflicting messages from two city agencies leaves choices that should fall to the authorities up to the individual, said Ellen Peters, who specializes in decision-making in health contexts at the University of Oregon. That was exactly the attitude expressed by many riders on Tuesday.

“It can be confusing, but you have to think about what’s best for you,” said Yusef Muhammed, a regular SEPTA rider who was boarding the 47 at the corner of 7th and Market. “So what’s best for me right now is to keep this mask on, even if they say take it off. Right now, until they figure it out, I need to keep mine on.”

But foisting the decision onto individuals can be overly burdensome, said Peters, especially when the data informing how much virus is spreading is becoming increasingly less reliable.

“We’re all really tired of all the statistics and the risk calculations that we’ve all had to make,” she said. “I think what’s going to end up happening is overall, it’s going to decrease our trust in those people who are telling us what we should do and shouldn’t do.”

Peters said it makes sense that people were still masked up for now: It’s natural for people to follow prior beliefs when they are faced with confusing messaging, and to conform with social norms.

But she said that may change over time as the word spreads that SEPTA’s mask mandate has been lifted. And when it does, said Peters (who used to live in Philadelphia), that could undermine the city’s effort to require masks in other indoor spaces.

“If the first thing you’re doing is you’re taking SEPTA to work and you don’t have to wear a mask, well you might just not remember to take a mask with you,” she said. On a practical level, she said, that might make people less likely to wear masks in other indoor spaces.

“I think it probably would erode the effectiveness of the indoor mandate.”

Many SEPTA riders said they’d continue to wear a mask without a mandate in place in Philadelphia, on April 19, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

On top of that, added Jennifer Kolker, a health management professor at Drexel University, removing the mask requirement from public transit will make it even harder to compare Philadelphia to other places. This could make it difficult to gauge whether Philadelphia’s early onset indoor mask requirement made any sort of difference in case transmission.

“It definitely makes it all even muddier than it was, and it was pretty muddy before,” she said.

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