Stuck to social distancing? SEPTA signage — and habits — remain as rules change

SEPTA lifted capacity limits on transit last week, yet signs of social distancing mandates remain. Not everyone is unhappy that the habit could survive.

Social distancing signage on SEPTA. (Billy Penn / WHYY)

Social distancing signage on SEPTA. (Billy Penn / WHYY)

SEPTA lifted capacity limits and stopped urging riders to social distance on transit last week, signaling a step toward post-pandemic life in Philadelphia. But removing the tens of thousands of stickers urging riders to give their neighbor some space on its vehicles will take at least another month.

“It is going to take some time,” said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch of the sticky signs adhered to subway, bus and trolley seats.

Busch said the authority is removing the signs as the vehicles go through a deep cleaning process, which happens every 10 days. Using products such as Goo Gone and STG Gone, the authority is being careful to remove the signs bonded to the seats with a strong adhesive without causing damage to the seat or leaving behind residue that could inconvenience riders.  The spokesperson said the authority expects to remove all signage by July.

“We’ve gone through a good amount, but we still have a lot to get through,” Busch said.

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Frankie Lane, 62, said he plans to distance regardless of what officials say.

“You don’t know if nobody got their shot, or whatever,” Lane said, while waiting for the trolley with his two-year-old granddaughter.

Meanwhile, riders like Chris Faulk are ready to put the pandemic behind them.

“They don’t bother me because if I’m going to sit, I’m going to sit,” said Faulk before boarding a westbound Market-Frankford Line train. “I know, and everybody else in the city should know, that things have changed. They’re opening up, and let’s go ahead and open it. Get the stickers off.”

Last year, the transit authority capped the number of passengers on its buses, trolleys, and the Norristown High Speed Line. Buses were capped at 20 people, or 30 on the double-length articulated buses. Trolley capacity maxed out at 25 customers, and the Norristown High Speed Line at 30.

The social distance signs were stuck to vehicle seats to deter people from sitting next to each other to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. SEPTA reports that nearly 31,000 signs have been stuck to seats on its buses, nearly 14,000 on the subway and elevated lines, 21,000 on Regional Rail, and 2,800 on its trolleys.

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But as more residents get vaccinated and the amount of new cases decreases, the authority is welcoming full capacity with hopes of boosting its ridership through the summer months, rendering the glued signage unnecessary.

Both the city and SEPTA have lifted most COVID-19 protocols, but mask mandates for both still remain. The city could lift its mask requirement on June 11, but SEPTA has no timeline for lifting its mask policy as of yet.

SEPTA Transit Workers Union official Brian Pollitt said the authority moved too quickly and that the signs should stay. The executive vice president said the authority should have raised the cap gradually instead of returning to full capacity.

Pollitt said the union is concerned about students who haven’t been vaccinated returning to the system for the school year. The union will raise the issue with SEPTA’s labor relations department, said Pollitt.

On May 13, residents 12 and older became eligible for vaccines, and residents 16 and older became eligible about a month prior. Recent data from the city shows 17,314 residents between ages 12 and 17 have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“We’re getting better, but we’re not out of the woods with this thing,” said Pollitt. “So we still need to take the same precautions that we took in the middle of the pandemic.”

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