Since mask mandates were lifted in the Chapel Hill and Carrboro area last month, many residents have opted to ditch their masks — but when using public transit, you might have noticed a lot of masked riders.
Although Orange County lifted its mask requirements on March 7 for all indoor public spaces, there is both a federal and local mask mandate in effect for public transportation, Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils said.
This includes Chapel Hill Transit, GoTriangle and other public transportation services.
In March, the Transportation Security Administration announced that it would extend its federal mask mandate to April 18, following guidance from the CDC. The mandate applies to all forms of public transportation, such as airplanes, buses and trains.
Chapel Hill Transit Director Brian Litchfield said Orange County will continue to require masks on public transportation as long as the federal mandate is in place.
“We’ve continued to follow the federal guidance, and we’re pleased that our customers have continued to follow that,” Litchfield said.
Seils said he has not received any objections from residents about the mask mandate still existing on public transportation.
In Chapel Hill, Town Council member Michael Parker also said he has not received complaints about the public transportation mandate.
“I haven’t heard any complaints from anyone in Carrboro about it,” Seils said. “On the contrary, my experience — and I ride the bus pretty frequently — has been that compliance with the mask mandate has been pretty good.”
On the buses
Carrboro Mayor Pro Tem Susan Romaine doesn't usually take the buses. But on March 30, she decided to get a first-hand look into compliance with the mask mandate.
During this time, she said she saw dozens of passengers entering and leaving the bus — and only three of them were unmasked.
When she got on the bus, she said she saw one passenger speaking on the phone unmasked. A second passenger entered from the back door and took a mask from the dispenser, but did not put it on, she said.
Romaine said that the third unmasked person was speaking to the bus driver without a mask, but the driver did not appear to ask this rider to put on a mask at that point.
“As best I could tell, there was no recommendation from the bus operator (to put on a mask)," she said. "So my sense is that the compliance varies from bus operator to bus operator."
However, Romaine said that at the bus stops on UNC campus, everyone that she observed complied with the mandate.
Megan Brinkman, a junior from UNC and a frequent user of Chapel Hill Transit, said that though most people wear masks on the bus, drivers frequently do not enforce the rules.
“I have never seen a driver tell someone to put a mask on,” she said.
Bus riders in Chapel Hill had varied opinions on the public transportation mask mandated. Brinkman said she supports keeping the mask mandate in place on buses until at least April 18.
As someone who volunteers in a hospital with children, Brinkman said it is important to keep herself — and the children she works with — safe.
Shengjie Xu, who sometimes rides Chapel Hill Transit, also said that he thinks it is reasonable to keep the mandate in place until that time.
“Transportation is definitely packed, so I think that’s generally a good idea,” he said.
Marina Shehata, who said she uses Chapel Hill Transit every day, said that she believes that masks should be optional on buses.
As of right now, she said masks should be a personal choice on public transportation.
“If someone doesn’t want to (wear a mask), they should have the freedom not to do it,” Shehata said.
On mask enforcement, Litchfield said Chapel Hill Transit relies on people to follow along with what's in the best interest of the community.
"We’ve got signage on the buses — both inside and outside," Litchfield said. "There’s audible messages that run, and when someone hops on a bus without a mask, a bus operator’s going to ask them kindly to put one on, and most times that happens."
The road ahead
Though the federal mask mandate on public transportation is set to expire soon, the TSA has extended it previously, leaving open the possibility it could do so again.
The mandate first went into effect in February 2021 and was subsequently extended multiple times.
Romaine said the Biden administration’s recent lift of pandemic restrictions at the U.S. border might be an indication that the mandate will end at the scheduled time.
“My sense is that the mask mandate will be lifted (on April 18) unless we see a sudden uptick in some of the measures that they are following,” Romaine said.
However, Seils said he is uncertain as to whether the mandates will continue past April 18. He said local leaders have been paying close attention to case counts, new variants and other potential COVID-related factors.
He said the Town of Carrboro will continue to look at these indicators.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen," he said. "It’s anybody’s guess, at this point.”
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