Wearing a mask is still required in subway stations, on trains, and in buses. But this month saw a major drop in the number of people wearing masks properly.
In April, an MTA survey found more than 90 percent of subway riders wore a mask covering their nose and mouth; in early July, it dropped to 70 percent. So, in an effort to raise awareness and get more masks in riders hands, the MTA convened its 13th Mask Force on Tuesday, sending out dozens of volunteers to distribute free masks throughout the transit system.
Rather than report on what happens when volunteers hand out masks, I joined the more than 1,000 people that have participated in the Mask Force since the program launched last July.
First stop was Atlantic Terminal to pick up my yellow Mask Force shirt, and to get the masks. As I entered, dozens of people streamed into the terminal. Nearly half were maskless.
But it wasn’t just riders flouting the MTA’s mask policy. At the NYPD bag check in front of the turnstile, there were three NYPD officers, all with masks — comfortably resting under their chins.
As I came closer to snap a picture of them, one officer pulled his mask up, but then lowered it again once I walked away. On the platform two more officers were chatting, looking at phones, with masks under their chins. I took a picture and got a dirty look from both of the officers, but they made an effort to pull their masks up.
“We expect our officers to comply with the requirement that masks are worn while on trains and in the Transit system,” a spokesperson for the NYPD wrote, after WNYC/Gothamist asked them about the incident. “When it comes to the public, we continue to provide any rider with a mask if they need one.”
After checking in with a Mask Force coordinator in a dingy MTA breakroom, I slipped on a bright yellow t-shirt and grabbed a tote bag full of masks. There were 40 packages with 5-packs of masks wrapped in plastic. I took a pair of blue gloves to wear as well.
For my first outing, I was paired with a Brooklyn bus driver who was volunteering during her time off. We hopped on a 4 train to Bowling Green. She said it felt good to do her part to get the public to protect each other and themselves.
I was grateful for her company. As a reporter, I’m used to taking things from people: stories, information, opinions. I’d never really been on the opposite end, giving things away to the public. And it took some getting used to.
I let my fellow volunteer do most of the talking, happy to be a sidekick. She was assertive and clear, asking a simple short question as she waded through the noisy subway trains and platforms: “Need a mask?”
At Bowling Green, we encountered a mix of people. There were office and construction workers, kids with shirts hanging over their shoulders, tourists. You never knew who would take a mask, so we offered one to everyone.
While the majority of people who took a pack were already wearing one, a few maskless people took them too.
A confused woman, not wearing a mask, carrying a large suitcase, snatched one and shoved it in a purse. She didn’t bother to open the pack and put one on.
A group of young men, deeply tanned, wearing cut-off t-shirts and Yankees hats were not wearing masks either, but they declined a mask.
Still, within 30 minutes we’re both out of our supplies.
My partner headed home, and I was on my own.
I picked up another tote bag of masks, hit the platforms at Atlantic Terminal, and hopped on a few subway cars.
After one woman asked me, “How much?” I expanded my pitch.
I got a few cold looks, but far more people either politely declined a mask, or thanked me. Within 2 hours, I’d handed out 400 of them, and it was time to call it a day.
The MTA’s Chief Customer Officer Sarah Meyer was out there as well. I didn’t see her, but she had a different experience than me, Tweeting that she was insulted repeatedly during her shift.
Not an easy day today asking New Yorkers to wear masks in the transit system. I was called a moron, an idiot and worse, just simply ignored by far too many. I want to thank all of the #maskforce volunteers today for their bravery and determination. Our work isn’t done. pic.twitter.com/GW8In9ZWku
— Sarah Meyer (@SarahMeyerNYC) July 21, 2021
In the end, as a member of the Mask Force, I found the majority of the people that took masks were people who already had one.
The MTA is still reminding riders to wear a mask, and said police will enforce the mask mandate. This week the agency said it will ask officers to issue $50 fines for people that refuse to wear one. Since September, it’s only issued tickets 38 times.
On my way home, I checked to see if the officers I saw at the beginning of the shift were still unmasked. They were. I took another picture.
More than a year into the pandemic the Mask Force still has work to do.