Are New Yorkers Masking Up on the Subway?


Face masks are a must on public transportation, but how is New York City, with its miles and miles of subways, doing at making sure passengers wear them? Not bad, it seems, though enforcement is not always easy.

On Jefferson Street in Brooklyn on February 12, no officer was seen at the station enforcing the order, but that wasn’t the case at the 14th Street Union Square station in Manhattan. MTA and NYPD Police officers were actively stopping whoever had no mask from boarding the train station.

One Man was seen rushing to board the #1 train to upper Manhattan without a mask. A police officer approached him and asked him to wear his mask, and they ended up creating a scene.

“Excuse me sir, you can’t board without a mask,” said the officer. “You either wear a mask or I will charge you with a misdemeanor of up to fifty dollars.”

“Sorry officer, I forgot my mask,” said the unmasked man, who declined to reveal his identity to a reporter.

“It’s against the law if you board without a mask,” the officer said. “You go back and get the mask.’’ Finally, after an angry exchange, the man was turned away.

Before a federal CDC Order to mask up on public transportation, which just came just this month, on February 2, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had already issued an executive order, back in April, requiring all customers and employees to cover their faces in public, as a mitigation measure for the pandemic. ” No rider has the right to endanger fellow riders by putting themselves above the law & refusing to wear a mask,” Cuomo tweeted. His order covered the New York subway and bus systems, the Long Island Railroad, and the Metro-North Railroad.  

The MTA later followed up with the $50 fine, in September, in response to Cuomo’s demand that the Authority come up with a plan to boost compliance with the mask mandate, according to Mass Transit magazine.

Passengers on the L train to Brooklyn expressed discomfort riding with people not wearing masks.  Bobby Hetherington, 62, was one of them. She was wearing three masks while on board.

“There are so many young people and homeless people on the train who endanger themselves and other for not wearing masks, I am uncomfortable? Absolutely yes! That’s why I am wearing three layers of masks, because I don’t want to get infected on the train,” she said.

Charlie Davis, 45, says he cannot sit next to person who is not masked up. “New Yorkers who don’t wear masks are crazy people and very selfish who do not care about basic human life,” said Davis. “I don’t like them.”

Still, not every New Yorker complies. Many of those opposed to wearing masks say that either COVID-19 risks are being exaggerated or that mask mandates violate rights or they are not enforceable, while others say they are too expensive.

Peter Travis, 34 and homeless, who was sheltering in the subway, is in the latter group. “I cannot afford to buy masks!” he said. “I can’t even afford to buy food.”

Meanwhile, enforcement is not always easy. Officer Wendell Kornegay, 53, a native of North Carolina, said he is still struggling with the trauma brought on by serving during the COVID–19 pandemic in New York City. He is attached to the Strategic Unit of the NYPD, which spent the lockdown last spring patrolling the streets, enforcing Cuomo’s order that residents wear masks in public, and performing other COVID-related tasks.

“It is a whirlwind, absolutely,” Kornegay said in a phone interview. “It is something beyond our control. Approaching someone without a mask is scary, but we have to adjust and try to make the best out of the situation we were dealing with mentally’’

The MTA’s own surveys claim that more than 90% of riders mask up on subways, buses, and railroads. The fine being imposed is intended to drive that number up even higher.

“We know the vast majority of New Yorkers are already doing the right thing and wearing a mask while riding with us,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit, in a statement. “The fine is a last resort measure for those who refuse to comply.”

According to the MTA, officers will first offer a free mask to any passenger who does not have one. If a rider refuses, they could be fined. Free face masks are also available at station booths across New York City Transit.

Ridership has declined since the pandemic began. The transit system has enacted a number of safety and sanitation measures in an effort to get potential passengers back on board, from disinfecting its cars and stations daily to stocking vending machines with personal protective equipment

Medical and public health experts have been united on the importance of public masking since it became clear that the virus could spread before someone was visibly sick.

Robert Bernales, a Columbia University doctor, emphasized the need to wear masks all the time regardless of whether people are on public transit or not. “Wearing masks all the time will protect Americans and provide confidence that we can all protect ourselves during the pandemic,” he said .