The MTA issued a final warning to LIRR and Metro-North riders Wednesday: Mask up or pay up.
One year after the state adopted a law allowing police to issue summonses to bus and train riders who don’t comply with COVID-19 masking regulations, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said they intend to hand out tickets more liberally in the coming days.
"I want to make it clear that we just want you to wear a mask, and we’re happy to provide you one if you forget yours at home," MTA Police acting Chief Joseph McGrann said outside of the authority’s Manhattan headquarters on Wednesday. "But make no mistake, if you refuse, you can expect to face a $50 fine."
MTA officials said the stepped-up enforcement is part of a broader "mask blitz" that began earlier this month, and has included additional police at subway stations and onboard trains. Only MTA Police can issue summonses, not train crew members.
Some Long Island Rail Road riders and advocates welcomed the MTA's more aggressive approach to enforcing the policy — based on state and federal law — that face coverings must be worn in all indoor transit facilities. Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said he's recently seen an increased police presence on trains — something his group had been requesting for months.
"People wouldn’t wear their masks because they felt, ‘Well, no one’s enforcing it. So why should I bother?’ " said Bringmann, who noted that most commuters do comply with the policy. "Some people are just stubborn. But, maybe, if you hit them in the pocketbook, they’ll get a little less stubborn."
Despite having the authority to do so, police have, until now, been reluctant to issue many summonses — handing out just 41 tickets through mid-August, according to the MTA. McGrann said cops use their discretion during run-ins with noncompliant riders, and that most situations are resolved by a cop giving a rider a mask to put on. Over the last three weeks alone, MTA Police have handed out 25,000 masks.
"At this point … we’re going to start handing out summonses more frequently," MTA chief safety and security officer Patrick Warren said. "We fully expect people to comply going forward. But we’re just putting people on fair notice."
After reporting nearly 100% of its riders masking up for months, the MTA saw compliance rates dip early in the summer, as mask requirements were relaxed in many locations and as more people got vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Warren said compliance rates recently have rebounded to 87% on subways and "in the low nineties" on the LIRR.
Ronkonkoma commuter Guillaume de Dalmas said even among riders who do wear masks, many don't wear them properly, leaving their noses exposed.
De Dalmas, 65, believes the MTA should go even further, and require that passengers be vaccinated. But he said handing out more summonses at least "solves the logic" of having had a rule in place, but not punishing those who violate it.
"You ask the conductor, and they say, ‘We don’t enforce it,'" de Dalmas, a banker, said in an interview. "There should not be two classes of laws. One of them you apply and the other one you don’t apply. That doesn’t exist in the Constitution. It’s the law. It should be applied, whether it’s stupid or not."
Some riders have pointed out that some of the very same police officers who should be enforcing the mask policy sometimes flaut it themselves. McGrann acknowledged that is the case, and said, in recent weeks, he's disciplined eight officers and two supervisors for "failure to wear masks appropriately in public situations."
Riders at Penn Station on Wednesday offered differing opinions on the MTA's "mask blitz."
Darci Montero, 52, of Huntington, was at the station on Wednesday evening for the 5:46 p.m. train.
She said she thinks the MTA isn’t bluffing this time regarding the fines — citing how eateries are enforcing the city’s indoor vaccine mandate, plus a recent argument she saw aboard an LIRR train between a conductor and a passenger who wasn't wearing a mask but put one on after the conductor gave it to her.
"I think this time, it’s serious … People need to understand that this is serious," she said, adding: "The mask is the only thing preventing passing it to other people."
Vincent Valela of Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood was waiting, unmasked, by the escalator to Tracks 20 and 21.
"They’re probably bluffing," he said of the threat to impose fines. He added: "It’s gonna be hard to keep track. Look how many people are walking around here not wearing masks. You can’t stop everybody."
As passengers rode down to the tracks, an announcement publicized the $50 fines.
With Matthew Chayes
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