Anyone who has been on a Long Island Rail Road train recently can attest to the fact that mask usage is not exactly universal.
Complete statistics are hard to come by, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has acknowledged a drop since spring, and plenty of commuters see the same. That's not surprising, given the loosening of mandatory mask restrictions in other locations as well as general, understandable exhaustion with the continued pandemic. But that doesn’t make it acceptable to go maskless, especially now that ridership is expected to increase with the opening of schools and workplaces.
Reasons to mask up on the train include the fact that it’s the law. Federal and MTA mandates require masks on the rails; those who decline can be fined $50. The pandemic has also climbed to another disturbing peak, and new data suggests the delta variant is more infectious than others. Now is not the time to drop precautions.
General-use masks provide some protection to the wearer and even more to nearby people by reducing the emission of droplets, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is particularly crucial with delta, which seems to produce a large amount of virus even in vaccinated people, who can then transmit it unless precautions are taken.
Mask wearing has been a point of culture war debate. But if scientific studies don’t move you — including one of a 2020 outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which found that use of face coverings was associated with a 70% reduced risk — maybe neighborliness will. Is it really such a hardship to cover your mouth for the commute if that improves the riding experience for others around you, to say nothing of LIRR employees who have little choice but to report to work in this shared environment?
MTA officials point to a number of strategies to encourage riders to mask up: handing out free masks, advertising about mask rules, providing PPE vending machines and masks at subway stations and railroad ticket booths. Over the last year, they have logged tens of thousands of encounters in which riders were given masks, successfully asked to adjust their masks, or asked to leave the system if they refused a free mask. The authority had also charted 41 summonses as of last month when the above interventions weren’t met.
It is becoming increasingly clear that COVID-19 will be around until, perhaps, it becomes like the seasonal flu. At least for the coming months, that means we will need to maintain a level of social and physical infrastructure to keep us safe — whether that’s an expanded mask dispensary system or just the accepted custom of wearing a mask on a crowded train. It might be annoying, but it will keep everyone healthier — and even behind a masked barrier, you'll be able to keep complaining about delays.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.