Mask usage on the Long Island Rail Road likely won't go away any time soon, as riders and transportation experts say a confined and crowded commuter train can make passengers uneasy — even after being vaccinated against COVID-19.
With COVID-19 vaccination rates rising, and infection rates dropping, the state recently relaxed face mask requirements in most indoor and outdoor areas. But mask requirements remain unchanged in public transportation settings, in accordance with state and federal guidelines.
That's fine by Oyster Bay commuter Karen Raccioppi. Although fully vaccinated, Raccioppi said it will be a while before she feels comfortable going maskless on the LIRR.
"I would like to not have to wear a mask in the office, but I will continue to wear a mask around Penn Station, as you’ve got the volume of people," she said. "Even as we are vaccinated and we come back to a little more normalcy — and you’re used to having people around — I think it’s going to take a little bit of time to get used to having people so close to us."
What to know
Although state and federal authorities recently relaxed mask requirements in most places, they remain in effect in public transportation settings, including the LIRR.
As of April 28, the mask compliance rate among LIRR customers was 98%, according to a survey of some of the railroad's busiest stations.
Some riders say they are in no rush to remove their masks and expect to continue wearing them even after they are legally required to do so.
Asked when it might be able to lift the mask requirement, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR's parent organization — said it will "continue to evaluate state and federal guidance."
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, while laying out the state’s new mask rules last Monday, said "you will still need to wear a mask on public transportation," including buses, subways and commuter railroads. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance states commuters must wear masks at transportation hubs throughout the United States.
The MTA said its mask compliance rate remains high — last measured at 98% during a survey at some of the railroad’s business stations on April 28. Law enforcement officials have issued 37 summonses throughout the MTA system since a $50 fine for mask violators took effect in September, the MTA said.
Over the last week, the LIRR has reminded customers in several emails that masks are required on trains, at "stations and on outdoor platforms, regardless of your vaccination status or social distancing."
Still, some passengers regularly have been spotted on LIRR trains without masks. And some commuters expect to see more maskless faces on trains in the coming weeks, as more people drop masks as part of their daily routine, and ridership increases with the reopening of more businesses.
Raccioppi said although most of her fellow passengers adhere to the mask mandate, a few do not — especially on station platforms.
"There will always be the ones who are never going to follow the rules," said Raccioppi, an executive assistant who has commuted on the LIRR for more than 30 years.
After bottoming out at around 3% of pre-pandemic levels a year ago, LIRR ridership has inched up to more than 30% in recent weeks — reaching 100,000 daily passengers this month for the first time since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in 2020.
Mandate or not, some other LIRR riders are in no rush to remove their masks on the train, including Islip commuter Catherine Szu, who expects to be "still wearing the mask for a while."
"The vaccine is still new, and we don’t know how it really protects us. And, still, people with vaccines can get the virus," said Szu, 40, who is pregnant and is waiting until after she gives birth to get vaccinated. She said she sees the same people on her train without masks "every day."
"I detest wearing the mask, but I wear it to protect my baby and myself," she said. "We could all … get rid of this stupid virus, if we just follow the rules."
While the mask requirement may make some commuters feel safer on the LIRR, Larry Penner believes it is keeping many more potential passengers off trains.
"If you want to bring the ridership back, you’re going to have to make it more attractive. One way you’re going to make it more attractive is to go back to normal, which means you don’t have to wear the masks," said Penner, a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration for 31 years.
Penner noted that LIRR trains are typically less densely packed than subways, and have air filtration systems that railroad officials said have higher standards than restaurants and schools. Penner suggested the railroad study vaccination rates among its ridership, and then consider designating one car of each train for vaccinated passengers, who would have to show proof that they've been inoculated.
LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann predicted that public transportation settings may be among the last to drop mask requirements, especially as ridership continues to rebound and trains become more crowded.
"It's a delicate balance. I wouldn't want to be the one to make that call, because you're damned if you do, damned if you don't," said Bringmann, who predicts some LIRR riders may wear their masks far after they’re required. "It's whatever people are comfortable with."