Fewer people are wearing masks in New York City’s subways than ever before since the MTA started counting compliance with federal COVID-19 mandate.
More than one-in-six riders, or 17%, wore no mask on subway trains while another 13% donned the face coverings incorrectly, according to the latest counts by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from March 7-18.
That’s a 9% bump of straphangers flouting the rules out of Washington compared to February, and the highest rate of maskless riders since the MTA began publishing the data almost two years ago.
The drop in compliance follows city and state officials lifting masking requirements for nearly all other settings in recent weeks, while keeping the rules on mass transit and at a small number of other facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, and homeless shelters.
Mayor Eric Adams on March 7 did away with mandatory masks for kids in K-12 schools and plans to end the requirement for 2-4-year-olds next week on April 4, if city coronavirus stats remain low.
COVID-19 infection rates have been slowly climbing again over the past week to 2.29% across a seven-day average as of Saturday, compared to 1.87% the week before, according to statewide figures by Governor Kathy Hochul’s office.
State health officials are monitoring the Omicron subvariant known as BA.2, which has driven up cases in the U.K. and made up 51.8% of cases here, according to recent data from the U.S. Health and Human Services Region 2, which includes New York, New Jersey, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
Meanwhile, the federal Transportation Security Administration recently extended the nationwide mask mandate for mass transit, indoor stations, and airports until April 18.
One maskless rider in Brooklyn said she had been “very diligent” about wearing the face coverings earlier in the pandemic and still keeps it on inside train cars, but has started taking it off at stations if it’s not too crowded.
“I’m a bit more lenient now,” said Cristina Solis at the Carroll Street station Sunday afternoon. “If it was crowded, but right now there is not that many people.”
Bus riders adhered better to the rules than those on the rails, as they have for the entire pandemic.
Figures on buses were also slightly down with 7% not wearing the coverings, compared to 4% the month before, and 17% wearing them incorrectly versus 13% previously, according to the latest MTA data from Feb. 21-March 4, just before the city school mandates ended.
One rider advocate said that the 83% of riders who wore a mask on subway trains was still relatively high, and chalked up the downward trend to more tourists visiting the city who may not know the rules, and more locals ditching the coverings as they have been able to do nearly everywhere else in their daily lives.
“The number is still relatively high considering that so many people just in general aren’t wearing masks anymore,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, an in-house rider advocacy group for the MTA.
A pair of out-of-state riders who were waiting for a Manhattan-bound train sans face covering at the Jay Street-MetroTech station in Brooklyn said they weren’t even aware that the COVID rules were still in place.
“We didn’t know about the mandate,” said Garrett Biggs, who was visiting from Arizona.
“I don’t want to wear one, but I will if I have to,” added his wife, Jenny Biggs.
According to MTA’s own rider survey from the fall, New Yorkers ranked COVID safety number one among their concerns about returning to transit, ahead of crime and service reliability.
Among lapsed riders, 80% cited concerns about the pandemic as a reason for using a different mode of transportation, while 62% of current riders did, compared to 68% and 49% fearing crime and harassment, and 29% and 35% worrying about reliability, the questionnaire found.
Those stats were before a series of shocking incidents brought crime to the forefront of many New Yorkers’ minds and the incoming Adams administration, most notably the homeless man who allegedly shoved Michelle Go to her death in front of a train at Times Square in January.
The numbers also predate the outbreak of the highly-contagious Omicron variant, which tore through the state and infected as many as 90,000 a day two months ago.
“I think I would feel more comfortable in that little subway car for that little bit of time with a mask,” said straphanger Gerald Wagoner also at the Carroll Street stop in Brooklyn. “As long as there’s a mandate, I’ll wear it.”
Cops can boot riders for not wearing masks and fine them $50, but police have been reluctant to heavily enforce those rules, issuing just 76 tickets between September 2020 and the end of 2021.
“Honestly, there’s been no enforcement and that’s been a concern,” said Daglian, of PCAC.
The MTA has been doing semi-regular promotion events known as Mask Force, distributing free masks to riders in stations, and the agency plans to send out volunteers and staff for another round Tuesday, March 29.
The Authority has also plastered the system with prominent yellow signs and regularly run announcements in stations letting passengers know that they still have to wear the masks.
MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber told Long Island business leaders he thinks there shouldn’t be a mandate on transit anymore and that he wouldn’t add an agency rule to keep them if the TSA lets the law sunset in three weeks, Newsday reported.
“I’m hoping that the mask mandate will come off, not because I have any status as an epidemiologist, but because mask mandates have come off in the rest of society,” Lieber told the Long Island Association Thursday. “I don’t want people getting into arguments, on the railroads and on the subways.”
“In the meantime, we are all going to keep complying,” the transit guru added.