Justin Fox

How About We Keep Wearing Masks on Trains and Subways Forever?

One morning last week a young man in a light-blue sport coat with AirPods in his ears and no mask on his face boarded my bus in Los Angeles and sat down. Then he looked around at all the masked faces, got up, walked to the front of the bus to grab a free mask from the dispenser, put it on and returned to his seat. It made my day.

In general I’m all for getting back to normal as we figure out how to live with Covid-19. I go to the office most workdays, eat indoors at restaurants, travel, shake hands or hug as appropriate and, yes, ride public transportation here in L.A. and back home in New York City. But I’d be happy to keep wearing masks on the bus and subway pretty much forever, and would really like it if lots of other people did, too.

For the moment mask-wearing is still required on planes, trains and other transit in the US by a federal mandate that was extended a few weeks ago until April 18. Airline executives are pushing hard for that to be the end of it, and on the subway in New York City adherence to the rule is falling quickly already, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Bus riders, who in New York City tend to be older than subway riders, have generally been better about keeping their masks on, but there, too, the trend is downward.

On my Southern California commute, riding the No. 4 Metro Bus from Santa Monica to the Century City office and shopping complex in Los Angeles, mask compliance remains very high. But there’s been an interesting shift in who disobeys. Back when the first wave of Omicron had just crested it was the occasional troubled person, like the drunk young man with a beer in his hand who almost fell onto my lap one evening (I moved seats after that) and the guy with a mask around his chin pleading “Stay away, I have Covid,” from the front of the bus one morning (we did, and the poor bus driver, who couldn’t stay away, let everybody board in back until the man got off). Lately, with more commuters returning and a more businesslike atmosphere prevailing, most of the maskless riders I’ve seen (including the one from the beginning of this column who reconsidered) have been young people dressed for office jobs. I’m guessing they’re fully vaccinated, at extremely low risk from Covid and, with mask mandates already lifted in most other settings, just didn’t think they needed one on the bus.

There’s surely more of that to come, regardless of what happens with the federal rule after April 18. Continuing to require masks on planes, trains and buses while almost everywhere else goes mask-optional will be really hard to enforce. And while the looming Omicron BA.2 wave and future Covid variants may justify renewed mandates, permanent mask rules in the absence of a public health emergency really do feel like a step too far.

That said, maintaining high levels of mask-wearing in crowded indoor settings where the costs to doing so are low seems like it might be a really good thing. It would probably reduce transmission of Covid, as well as seasonal colds and flu, and by helping sustain ongoing demand for surgical and N95 masks it could keep us better prepared for future Covid variants and other pandemics than we were for this one.

In a lot of settings, there are costs offsetting at least some of those benefits. Wearing a mask on a long plane, train or bus ride, or for an entire school- or workday, can be unpleasant, and in the latter two cases interfere with crucial communication. Wearing one into a restaurant and then taking it off to eat seems mostly pointless (which also applies for planes and trains that offer meals).

On a shortish bus or subway ride, on the other hand, wearing a mask doesn’t detract from the experience in any meaningful way. If anything, widespread mask wearing by others makes the ride more pleasant. Mask wearing discourages eating and talking — the first of which is generally banned on city buses and trains, while the second is more often than not irritating to fellow passengers. It’s a win-win!

Lots of people wearing masks also encourages more people to wear masks, as I witnessed on the bus last week. There have been at least a couple of academic attempts to quantify this effect, although neither offers a simple percentage estimate of how prevalent masking needs to be to stay prevalent. In China and Japan it’s been near-universal during the pandemic in the absence of any mandates, and was already widespread before Covid, especially during cold and flu season. Nudging big-city public transportation systems in the US toward that kind of equilibrium seems like a worthy and not entirely unreasonable goal.

How to do it? The Behavior Change for Good Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania offers an assortment of “Behavioral Science Tips to Encourage Mask-Wearing” that fall into five main categories:

-Emphasize the Many and the Influential Who Are Wearing Masks
-Respect Individual Freedom
-Make It The Right Thing to Do
-Use Emotional Appeals
-Invite Ownership and Personalization

Transit agencies may hesitate to undertake such campaigns for fear of discouraging ridership by signaling that public transportation is unsafe, although I would think that people who have been avoiding buses and subways during the pandemic would be more reassured by masked faces than frightened by them (85% of subway users surveyed by the MTA last fall agreed with the statement, “I feel safer when I see other customers wearing masks”). The early belief that the New York subway in particular was a dangerous pandemic vector has been largely debunked by the rapid spread of Covid in non-urban settings, and buses and subways are often better ventilated than offices, restaurants, stores or dwellings. But they’re still enclosed spaces crowded with strangers where masks can add a welcome layer of protection.

So let me close by emphasizing that, while I respect your freedom, I wear a mask on the bus and subway, as do all my friends, especially the influential ones, because it’s the right thing to do and we want to save the lives of immunosuppressed grandmas — and if you want to wear a cloth Aaron Judge face covering that offers you relatively little protection, well, it’s better than nothing.