SEPTA is giving masks to riders after backlash to face-covering mandate

A SEPTA bus driver wears a protective mask as he drives through Philadelphia, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A SEPTA bus driver wears a protective mask as he drives through Philadelphia, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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SEPTA is distributing about 20,000 surgical masks to riders on select buses and trains and at select transportation hubs — 69th Street Transportation Center, and 15th Street, Suburban, and Jefferson stations.

The move comes less than a week after a video of Philadelphia Police dragging an unmasked man off a SEPTA bus surfaced online. The officers were responding to a 911 call made by a SEPTA driver over a disturbance sparked when the driver asked the man to put on a mask or get off the bus. He was enforcing a short-lived policy requiring riders to wear a mask or face covering, which was rolled out with no formal announcement. After the video went viral, SEPTA reversed the policy.

SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said the regional transit authority intends to change rider behavior with the mask giveaway, but will not revisit a face-covering requirement.

“We do want to make sure that everybody is clear we’re strongly behind the effort to get everybody to wear facial coverings,” he said.

Busch said the ultimate goal is for riders to enter the system with their own masks.

“Maybe for some customers this is a bridge to them being able to make a home fashioned mask,” he said. “We’re trying to reinforce the message that we really want customers to wear some sort of facial covering.”

SEPTA’s crackdown on masks came shortly after the death of Michael Holt, a bus operator who was the third SEPTA employee to die from coronavirus.

The CDC recommends people wear face masks to prevent the spread of the virus, especially in spaces where social distancing is difficult like a bus or train.

Busch also said SEPTA has about 500,000 surgical masks for its non-law enforcement employees. They distributed 61,000, said Busch, and the transit police force has a “few thousand” N95 masks.

The authority expects to procure more masks in the future, but they’re asking employees to stretch the use of them as SEPTA faces the same global supply shortages as government agencies worldwide.

“We’re hoping they can get a few days out of these masks,” Busch said. “And then they can be replenished.”

SEPTA also purchased 8,700 neck gaiters and received a donation of 1,500 bandanas from Walmart.

More than 160 agency employees have tested positive for the coronavirus throughout 27 locations, including its headquarters at 1234 Market Street.

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