In some ways, it’s an old story told in a new way, but in these times, maskless riders on Red Buses spell trouble. And emphasize RIOC’s passivity on public safety. Drivers’ refusals to enforce rules, like baby strollers making aisles unpassable, always irritated some passenger. This issue, though, in the shadow of COVID-19, forces choices about unacceptable risks.
By David Stone
“We have a problem, and it is serious and affects children too young to qualify for a vaccine,” a concerned RI mom wrote. Two of her children are under ten. She’s deeply concerned about their safety, worries aggravated by the spread of the coronaviruses Delta variant.
Her email was directed at RIOC transportation chief Cy Opperman, PSD chief Kevin Brown and president/CEO Shelton Haynes. She also called and left messages.
“Red Bus drivers are allowing riders to ride without a face mask, and when it’s pointed out, they do nothing.”
RIOC being RIOC, none of the executives responded to her emails or voice messages.
Maskless Riders on Red Buses
Earlier this week, she said, she saw “a woman moving towards the back of the bus,” where she sat with her children. The woman was not wearing a face mask.
“I told the driver, and she did nothing. Then two other ladies boarded the bus, and one of them was not wearing a mask. I pointed it out, and the driver disregarded my complaint.”
The driver told the worried mom that she was wasting everyone’s time, that it was not her job to police people boarding her bus. It was, the driver insisted, up to the riders to wear or not wear a face mask.
The frustrated mom finally got the attention of a PSD officer at the Tram.
He corrected the reluctant driver, reiterating state and RIOC guidelines that all passengers on public transit must wear facemasks.
Why was the driver unaware?
That’s unknown, but it’s not unusual as RIOC’s lack of personnel management worsened in the past year.
A couple of weeks back, I got on a bus at 40 River Road, in full view of the driver, and boarded without a face mask, never realizing until I noticed other riders wearing theirs. Now one of the maskless riders myself, I walked down the aisle to the front of the bus and asked the driver if he had any spares.
His answer was a shrug of the shoulders. So, I asked him to let me off. It was my fault, and playing by the rules in a health crisis matters. A bad situation was avoided, but not because the driver did anything. Actually, he did less than anything. Keeping spare masks on the bus and gentle reminders should be a minimum.
But back to the concerned mom…
Later that same day, she and both kids got off between stops and walked home. That came after another Red Bus driver allowed a maskless passenger to board at the subway.
Mom, with both her children on board with her, asked the new maskless rider to put on a mask. But she was standing beside the driver and said, “No.”
When the driver ignored her, the RI mom got off rather than endanger her children.
Passivity is not new with Red Bus drivers, but these days, it’s riskier than ever.
A History Lesson
A few weeks before the COVID crisis hit, Haynes and Opperman met with a group at the CBN/RI Senior Center, answering residents’ transportation-related questions. Drivers not enforcing rules about strollers, senior seating and crowding doors brought the most heated comments.
Opperman’s best response was that drivers must pay attention to the road first and passengers second. He also alluded to difficulty in hiring enough staff and retaining them, suggesting that extra burdens for drivers risked losing them.
A suggestion that PSD officers, a huge, often invisible staff, riding buses might help, but that never happened.
All this, though, was before the coronavirus threatened lives, and maskless riders became a potential menace.
But there’s something else at play, and even small efforts by RIOC and its drivers can help.
Some Common Sense with Maskless Riders
Mothers with vulnerable children have few options when encountering maskless riders on Red Buses. It should be clear to anyone, even RIOC execs, that situations of this kind are neither acceptable nor fair.
Especially when simple solutions exist.
Training drivers should be Step One and, really, should’ve been months ago.
And to be fair, few people board public transit knowingly ignoring the rules. After months of confusing guidance, along with conflicting state, local and federal regulations, many are simply confused. Few object to a gentle reminder.
Like me, some who are fully vaccinated simply forget to bring along a mask, just in case. Having spares on hand, as the MTA does, is common sense. I recently saw a Tram operator provide a face mask for a passenger boarding without one.
Tram operators, who are not employed by RIOC, normally and loudly instruct everyone to wear a mask. RIOC bus drivers seldom, if ever, do.
A quick fix is politely asking any maskless rider to put one on. A women sitting beside me on a Red Bus suddenly noticed her mistake, said so and, apologizing, immediately brought one out of her purse.
Sure, there will be unruly passengers, but a quick call to PSD can remedy that. Drivers have radios, and they’ve used them before.
It may be a temporary inconvenience, but it beats compelling a mom worried for her kids getting off and walking home in 90 degree heat, just to feel safe.
RIOC can and should do better.
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