MARTA trains at West End Station in Atlanta.

MARTA is considering requiring its bus and train customers to wear face masks in an effort to increase ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic, its leader said.

“We have to have a path forward to get us out of social distancing,” General Manager and CEO Jeff Parker said. “The airline industry is running services but requiring (passengers to wear) masks. We see only about 35% of our customers wearing masks. We’ve got to improve that dramatically. That’s the only way to increase ridership. … We may force people to wear masks and may fine them for not wearing masks.

He spoke during a quarterly MARTA update at the Fulton County Board of Commissioners’ June 3 meeting at Assembly Hall in downtown Atlanta, with most commissioners and some county department leaders participating remotely due to the outbreak.

Parker said MARTA ridership is down, with only 35 to 40% of the trips that were provided pre-outbreak available today due to cuts in service the agency made after the pandemic hit the nation in March. As of June 2, bus ridership is down 42% and rail ridership down 74% when compared to an average weekday in February, MARTA spokeswoman Stephany Fisher said.

However, Parker said, “In New York only about 5% of their riders are using their system since (the) COVID-19 (pandemic) started. … We’re seeing the beginning of a small uptick, but we feel it’s going to be a long time before full ridership is restored.”

Since the pandemic started, Fisher said, “Masks are a required part of all MARTA operator uniforms and all employees and contractors are required to wear masks while on MARTA property.”

But it hasn’t yet mandated customers don them. District 6 Commissioner Joe Carn said he recently discussed the issue with Virgil Fludd, MARTA’s assistant general manager of external affairs, and was surprised the mask requirement hadn’t been enacted yet.

“Why on Earth would MARTA not mandate the face covering or warning if you’re going to (get) on the buses?,” Carn said. “Obviously, it’s close quarters. He said the issue was a matter of enforcement. I really don’t ascribe to that argument. You can’t enforce everything at every bus station, but enforcement with no shoes or no shirt should be the equivalent of enforcement for masks. If you truly want to get back on your feet, this would be an obvious low-hanging fruit.”

But Parker said enforcement was the main issue with customers wearing masks, especially bus riders.

“We have no legal authority to enforce wearing masks,” he said. “Other states have that authority, but Georgia has not done it yet. It’s something we may ask for. We feel we need to put together a strong public service campaign to increase the numbers.

“It’s about realizing how important it is for the safety of riders and their families and other riders. We have enforced having employees wear masks to work. (For) a bus operator picking up bus riders in the rear door, it’s not a conducive way to tell people they can’t get on a bus without wearing a mask. We as a society need to encourage it in a larger way. The low (ridership) numbers are not just a MARTA problem.”

Parker said MARTA will use $83 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Emergency Response (CARES) Act funding to help balance its $1.1 billion fiscal 2021 budget.

“There will be significant downsizing of our administrative staff, but we’re confident we’ll be able to eventually get back to normal” with staffing after the pandemic ends, he said.

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