Jose Martinez and Christopher Alvarez, THE CITY
As COVID cases in the city hit their highest point in months in August, the number of riders ejected from the subway for defying the mask mandate in stations and on trains sank to the lowest level in nearly a year, numbers obtained by THE CITY show.
Police officers asked riders to leave the subway system for refusing to wear a face covering 21 times last month — and zero $50 summonses were doled out for failing to cover up, according to MTA data.
That’s a 96% dropoff from last December, when 536 people got the boot for ignoring an executive order on mask-wearing issued by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo during the thick of the pandemic in April 2020.
Meanwhile, the number of riders who voluntarily complied with warnings or accepted a mask from authorities neared highs, records show. But some commuters interviewed by THE CITY said they’ve observed cops skirt the mandate they’re supposed to enforce.
“There are very few police that ask you to wear it, but also, I see some police wear their mask on their chin,” Anabel Zamora, 39, who was wearing both surgical and cloth masks as she exited the Woodhaven Boulevard stop along the M and R lines in Queens, said in Spanish. “So how can they enforce something if they don’t respect the rules themselves?”
The statistics show August was the first month to generate zero summonses since September 2020, when the NYPD and MTA police were cleared to begin fining subway, bus and and commuter rail customers for refusal to wear a mask while using public transit.
In July, the numbers reveal, police slapped three $50 summonses on riders, down from a high of nine in October.
There were also 2,060 instances in August in which officers verbally reminded riders to properly cover their noses and mouths — nearly double the 1,171 logged in July.
Police distributed more than 4,200 masks in August to commuters who didn’t have their faces covered — the most since nearly 5,300 masks were handed out last October, according to the MTA.
That’s in addition to the more than 800,000 free masks distributed throughout the transit system since July 2020 by the MTA Mask Force.
The transit agency has lost more than 170 employees to COVID, but has also had to contend with resistance to vaccines from thousands of workers.
Unvaccinated MTA workers will not be required to take weekly COVID tests “for the time being,” the New York Post reported Sunday, delaying a mandate that state employees be vaccinated by Labor Day.
While the MTA’s recorded reminders to properly wear masks in the transit system play frequently in stations and on trains, enforcement is left to police. Hundreds of transit workers have been assaulted for asking riders to wear face coverings.
An NYPD spokesperson would not comment on mask-enforcement efforts by police within the transit system beyond making a general statement.
“When it comes to the public, we continue to provide any rider with a mask if they need one,” Det. Sophia Mason said.
The department has been criticized over cops flouting the mask mandate in and out of the transit system. Police officials last month said officers who take off their face coverings while on duty need to show proof of vaccination or potentially face “appropriate disciplinary actions.”
Commissioner Dermot Shea last week said police “have to be held accountable” after a maskless officer confronted a man who snapped a photo of him and another cop inside the 46th Street station on the M and R lines in Queens. Shea called the officer’s response “very inappropriate.”
Karen Cullinane, who rides the subway to and from her job in Manhattan, said an officer snapped at her in May after she stepped off a No. 6 train and pointed out he was not wearing a mask on a platform at Grand Central-42nd Street.
“He asked, ‘Do you really want me to ruin your day?’ I looked at him like ‘What?’” Cullinane, 38, told THE CITY. “It was kind of shocking, because I was not being a wiseass or anything.”
“Never saw cops enforce masks and honestly, a lot of the cops on the train don’t wear one,” said Hiwet Tezhale, 24, who was at the Woodhaven Boulevard station.
Police officers who patrol the transit system have the power to issue summonses for riders who do not comply with mask-wearing requirements, unlike in some other regions.
A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates the public transit system in the Greater Boston area, said MBTA police can no longer issue summonses for non-compliance with mask-wearing regulations ever since the commonwealth’s pandemic-related state of emergency ended.
Since June 2020, Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers in and around San Francisco have issued only six citations against commuters who did not wear face coverings in the transit system, a spokesperson said. Fines range from $100 to $1,000, depending on where in the BART system’s five-county area they were issued, the spokesperson added.
And in London, approximately 4,370 fines were issued, starting in July 2020, for non-compliance with Transport For London’s mask-wearing rules, a spokesperson said. But since mid-July, the spokesperson said, TFL officials can only refuse service to those not wearing a face covering and can no longer issue fines.
While the MTA’s weekday subway ridership of nearly 2.4 million is about half of what it was prior to the pandemic, it’s expected to tick up as students and office workers return to the system pots-Labor Day.
But Kirk Cheyfitz, 74, a subway rider from the Upper West Side, said he’s now largely avoiding mass transit amid the spread of the Delta variant because of concerns over people not wearing masks on trains.
He said he’s seen too many encounters over mask-wearing on the train break down into riders yelling at each other.
“Sometimes, if you say, ‘Please put on your mask, they say, ‘Oh sorry I forgot’ and sometimes they say, ‘I don’t have a mask,’” Cheyfitz said. “But frequently they say, ‘F— you and the horse you rode in on!’”
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
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