While riding a Metro bus last week, I finally witnessed an operator using his authority to get a rider who refused to wear a mask off the bus. The rider boarded the bus, talking to himself loudly, and sat in the back. The operator played the canned message about needing to wear a mask. He waited a few seconds, then got on the loudspeaker to let everyone know they need to wear a mask while on the bus. The guy in the back didn’t budge, but kept talking loudly to himself. (I realize there may be a medical condition involved here.)

The operator proceeded a couple stops. He then walked toward the back, and told the rider he needed to put on a mask, or get off the bus, and also to please be quiet and stop disturbing the rest of the riders.

At the following stop, another rider walked back to the rider and offered him a mask. He either declined or never put the mask on.

A few stops later, the operator got on the loudspeaker again, and said he had called a supervisor to come to that stop. The supervisor would take the rider where he needed to go. But he had also called the police. The rider would either depart the bus, or be escorted off by the police. The rider chose to depart, cursing out the operator as he alighted.

The operator got on the loudspeaker again and apologized for the delay.

While acts of bravery like this are not for every operator, and possibly not even the best or safest practice, it is the sum of many tactics – including making face coverings freely available, keeping most riders socially distant from the operator so operators don’t become super-spreaders, keeping doors closed to those who haven’t put on a mask, educational efforts, frequent disinfection spraying, and sufficient service to enable social distancing — that help make the bus or train a safe place to be.

Besides the risk of violence, the operator’s due diligence on enforcing the mask requirement had a downside. The bus was over 10 minutes late starting the route. It had a load factor of ca. 0.5, meaning that every pair of seats had someone in it, and was well over Metro’s 12-passenger limit for a 40-foot bus.

As it happens, this route is slated to drop to hourly service at the time of night this incident happened, come September 19. At that time of night, enforcing the passenger limit results in stranding riders, which is probably why the operator chose not to enforce it. (The solution to some of the Friday/Saturday night capacity issues might not be to keep more frequency every night, but simply to add capacity on Friday or Saturday nights, and denote in the schedules that certain runs only occur on Friday nights.)

Pranav Baskar at National Public Radio recently discussed the state of safety on public transit.

If you have been riding the bus, train, streetcar, ferry, or plane lately, how was your experience, and did you have to deal with fellow riders not wearing a mask or not wearing it properly?

37 Replies to “When public health tactics collide on the bus”

  1. I have seen near-total mask compliance on the routes I ride in north Seattle. One bus driver is particularly diligent about telling people over the internal and external PA system that masks are required and, the few times someone has been ready to board without one, the driver’s gentle reminders have prodded that person into masking up. (It’s frustrating, for me, to see people not wearing a mask but then suddenly be able to produce one from a pocket or bag when prompted. Just put the damn thing on.)

    I look forward to Metro being a lot more proactive in handing out masks and having people out to do reminders. I’ve seen people do the opposite of recommended, being outside wearing a mask but then immediately yank it down when walking inside a building. That baffles me. Perhaps people need more immediate, and often, reminders.

    Oh, and can we please get some variation in the recurring mask reminder recording? The very formal, almost legalistic “I’m Doctor Jeff Duchin; King County requires that you wear a face covering over your nose and mouth while on board” recording is wearing thin. Change it up, otherwise it just blends into the din of the background.

    1. Or a half-dozen other things…

      The cleanliness of buses is really going to matter going forward.

    2. QA, where I’d draw the line is when the talker comes up and demands that the driver tell them to leave themselves alone. But for the case Brent is citing, might be good if the driver’s Base Chief leads off with the following question:

      “After first refusal, did you unobtrusively give Control your route, run, coach number, location, and direction of travel and ask for the police to be waiting for you en route?”

      And also remind the operator that putting yourself in either spitting or knife range of a perpetrator can get you “violated” worse than the Social Distance you personally lost your composure and chose to ignore. Like straight into either Harborview or the morgue or both on same trip.

      But Brent, since we’re running out of ($), any chance you’ve got a symbol for pound, ruble, or shekel? Because somewhere in the budget, like maybe an ST- or two, we need those mobile squads of mental-health medics, preferably female and definitely uniformed.

      Since Seattle will probably vote for Jay, least he owes us is some combat experience out of both the Washington National Guard and the army at JBLM. Personal experience with both leaves me convince that, like a conductor, a nurse carries the KIND of authority that perfectly fits these situations.

      And word to Hollywood and the World Online: “Cuckoo’s Nest” slandered Army Nurse Mildred Ratched, and her latest depiction compounds the crime. Let’s leave calumny like this to a certain reality-show creator, who’s no friend of anything not powered by oil or coal.

      Mark Dublin

      1. I have to heartily disagree with the tactic of having the police waiting there. Actually getting the police involved should be the last resort, as we’ve seen incidents quickly melt down into violence when it comes to that.

        Now, having a properly-trained mental health worker waiting there, unannounced, could help. In this case, even that seemed questionable, as the only thing to be accomplished was to get the guy to start wearing a mask. I didn’t sense that riders wanted him kicked off just for having a condition that causes him to talk loudly to himself. It’s a public bus. We have all kinds.

        Announcing that cops are coming has long been an effective way to get people to stop trespassing on a bus once it is made clear they are not welcome to stay.

  2. “rider would either depart the bus, or be escorted off by the police.”

    How would this work if the police had been defunded 50% as come council members have been pushing for?

    Would the police be replaced by private security guards paid for out of the Metro budget (and, probably, less accountable that the regular police)?

    1. Ideally, the operator would have someone better to call than an armed police officer, like a city-funded public health outreach worker with de-escalation and self-defense training.

      1. I’ve heard different stories about what “defund the police” means, and I’m still trying to workout what to believe.

        One version essentially makes half the cops unarmed (since the vast majority of calls do not require the officer to be armed), then move the unarmed cops under some other organizational umbrella which is technically not “police”.

        The other version essentially means you call 911 and be told that the police are all busy.

        I think people are mostly aiming for the former, except if it effectively just means “half the police officers don’t have weapons”, it’s not freeing up money to “invest in the community”. That’s the part I’m still struggling with.

        Agree in this case that a someone tasked with getting a mask refuser off the bus probably doesn’t need a gun.

      2. I’ve heard different stories about what “defund the police” means, and I’m still trying to workout what to believe.

        In general it would mean we operate more like advanced countries when it comes to policing. So that means a much smaller, more effective police force, along with a bigger safety net. Thus people talking to themselves and causing trouble on buses would be rare, instead of commonplace. When it does occur, they would send someone who knows how to handle the situation, instead of someone who knows what to do if World War 3 breaks out.

        It can also mean breaking up a dysfunctional police system, and rebuilding from scratch (like Camden New Jersey).

      3. “defund the police” is becoming an empty term like “common sense gun control” and “fair share of taxes,” where everyone agrees as long as you avoid specifics.

      4. “So that means a much smaller, more effective police force, along with a bigger safety net”

        Right. No doubt, a bigger safety net would avoid a lot of the mental problems that we need police to deal with. The problem is, you can’t really use the police budget to pay for it. 1) It’s not nearly enough money, 2) Replacing armed officers with unarmed officers doesn’t really save money, regardless of whether the unarmed officers are technically considered “police” or not, 3) Until the new social safety net is actually in place, and has been for some time, it seems reducing the number of officers would likely increase crime (at least in the short term), with the existing criminal/mentally unstable population still out there.

      5. It’s not just taking away officers’ guns. It’s hiring a different kind of people and training them differently. Police are trained to handle violent situations and go after bad guys, and people who sign up for it expect to do a lot of that. The new force would have people trained as social service workers, mental health specialists, etc.

    2. King County has its own transit police division. I would guess they are being downsized (hopefully by a hiring freeze rather than layoffs) in proportion to reduced service.

      King County Metro also contracts out for fare enforcement officers, and used to contract out for tunnel security.

      While the gentleman’s unmasked aspirations was a health threat to the other riders, there was no sign his own health or life was in immediate danger, unless the incident became violent.

    3. asdf2, I wish somebody twittersavvy would see to it that the term “Defund” get “Doxed” ’till it Cancels itself ’til everybody just decides it’s “Sooooooo Phase 3″ that, like the right wing always says when they beat up somebody weak….”HILARIOUS!”

      What if instead we just start calling it “Reassign police to work they don’t resent, hate, and fear”, and use revenue saved by eliminating legal penalties for wrongful killing to fund an additional three ST-‘s?

      In addition to action-oriented nursing staff specifically trained to handle the mentally ill. And meantime, as I’m requesting from drivers and supervisors, could we please hear, anonymously if necessary, from the law enforcement officers who have to handle these problems now?

      Many thanks,

      Mark Dublin

  3. Mask wearing behavior appears to be a function of the individuals’ race and class.

    Bus drivers don’t usually give a hoot.

    Neither do riders.

    And the mentally ill don’t get called on it either.

    South Seattle much less compliant than North Seattle.

    As far as I’m concerned, there needs to be a transit cop on most of buses, enforcing fares and mask wearing uniformly. Along with behavior & smell enforcement.

    If buses are left to be covid transmission zones with people disconnected from reality or the very poor, they will serve as charity cases. Which is how its worked out in pierce county/tacoma. It turns the system dysfunctional.
    All of society needs to buy in to make buses work, so everyone needs to play by the rules of majority society. ST has usually understood and pressed this, but Metro has struggled to enforce it. Metro probably needs to step up their focus on serving the majority in order to keep themselves afloat.

    because no one sane wants to get on the bus and get coughed on because metro refuses to enforce mask wearing.

    1. I can reasonably assure you that the operator in this incident acted according to the training he has been given by Metro.

      1. If the driver indeed left his seat and compromised his Social Distance from the problem passenger, Brent, I can assure you with a certainty that’s Reason personified that somebody in Instruction needs serious and immediate Retraining before is Instructions get somebody killed.

        Mark Dublin

    2. Mask wearing behavior appears to be a function of the individuals’ race and class.

      Bus drivers don’t usually give a hoot.

      Neither do riders.

      And this blog never has trolls. Nope, never. Not ones who make racist claims without any evidence, or disparage public employees. Nope. Doesn’t happen.

      Oh, and if you believe all that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

  4. I ride mainly in North Seattle. It’s anecdotal, but mas compliance is 80+%. However (and again, this is anecdotal), proper mask usage is more common among older and white passengers, and less common among other groups.

    I was on a 372 where a passenger got belligerent about not wearing a mask. They were shouting and possibly shoved another passenger. The driver pulled over to wait for the police and the rest of us were able to eventually board another 372.

    My worst experience was on a 3 from downtown to Harborview. Every allowed seat was taken and there were several people standing by the door. Mask compliance was only around 60%. I have another appointment there later this month and will likely walk from Pioneer Square.

    1. The 3 is always a s*it show. People ignore the seats that are blocked and sit wherever they want. And I would bet many of the riders are higher risk for covid due homelessness and exposure and medical conditions so it is the route where one would hope you’d see near total compliance.

      1. I think this is more a function of how the 3 and 4 are always crushloaded, since they only ever use 40ft buses.

      2. And since the crowding you describe takes place on a single space of trolley-wired route-map, namely James from Third to Ninth, can anybody tell me how well the new sixty-foot electric “artics” can handle that climb?

        Since the issue is passenger-spacing, it might be time to run the “3” in platoons, like DSTT was supposed to do but didn’t because management and political oversight considered the smell of their own sweat offensive.

        But in addition to the route’s proximity to the police station, the King County Courthouse, and Harborview’s mental ward, enforcement of any kind should really not be any imposition.

        Mark Dublin

  5. There are far too many mentally ill people riding the bus and wandering the streets homeless and not getting the mental health care that they need in this state. Some of them are like ticking time bombs with the way their illness causes them to behave. This driver was brave to approach someone in psychosis like that. I always think what if they have a gun or a knife? But it gets old having to deal with passengers like that putting others at risk by riding maskless and subjecting other passengers to their unpredictable often combative behavior.

    It seems like when they closed most of the institutions back in the 70’s (Northern State Hospital) that they wen’t too far and did not have places for the individuals who were at those institutions and who would have been sent to one. So now there is no place for many of them to go so they end up homeless. That hardly seems like an improvement over an institution. The institutions needing improvement for sure. But what we are doing with our mentally ill now is not right and it is making our communities less safe.

    1. Shamefully, Seaguy, true enough. But there’s a context: The “Original Intent” of the effort to rescue mental patients from institutions not “Out of Charles Dickens”, but more like “Permanently Stuck There.”

      Proponents of De-Institutionalization envisioned a nationwide mental health system wherein patients could live either in their own homes or other clean and compassionate surroundings.

      Including regular visits, routine and emergency, from well-trained (and compensated) counselling and nursing staff, instead of guards. Who would also make sure the had the drugs they needed. Enough to alleve temptation to use the other kind.

      What happened? Same thing that happened to the rest of us. With the ascent of a medium-grade movie actor to the Presidency, our country took the same political trajectory as a semi breaking a right front tie-rod on an Appalachian Interstate at eighty.

      Gravity may not always be fair but….with certain Quarters giving all the ORDERS……It’s the law!

      Mark Dublin

    2. The psych hospitals had to be closed. They were horrifying pits of despair impossible to escape from. Rampant abuse. The ones that are left aren’t any better.

      What needs to happen is guaranteed housing and no-cost medical care. For *everyone*.

      1. After a series of court cases regarding terrible conditions and lack of actual treatment at mental health institutions (asylums) in the 1970s, Jimmy Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, that “supported and financed community mental health support systems, which coordinated general health care, mental health care, and social support services”. It was based off of studies that showed that local, community supported mental health works way better than throwing someone in a hole and forgetting about them.

        It was promptly repealed when Reagan took office via the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 AKA the first of his many tax cuts on the wealthy. This coupled with his escalation on the War on Drugs, ensured that not only are mentally ill people not likely to get the help they need, but they’ll probably also end up in jail with a criminal record due to turning to illegal drugs to help their situation.

        So I like to refer to the mentally ill on the streets as Reagan’s Children, because his authoritarian policies ensured that this would be the situation in America.

  6. Since you put it in your lead sentence, pn, could you please define what you mean by “race and class”, along with your credentials to assign identity?

    Waiting at the bus stop at the end of my driveway, I got into a conversation with a young woman whom the description of “black” would fit respectfully, whose colloquial English nobody could classify as different from “Native Born USA.”

    As she told me that, in addition, by hereditary ethnicity, she classified herself as West African and also, by parentage, Norwegian. I told her that, self-classifying as pro-Waterfront Streetcar, I’d been in Oslo twice. Her answer? “Visiting my family, so have I.”

    You’re right on every single point about the problem and the necessary measures to protect our passengers and drivers. So do yourself a favor. Leave the race and class prejudice to the professionals who’ve already proved their ability to take office with it, no matter how few votes they got.

    Mark Dublin Race? Texas-born Austro-Hungarian Jew. Class? Young people like the sweaters I inherited from my Dad.

  7. These crowding guidelines are specious. If everyone is wearing a mask, a crowded bus is pretty safe. Without masks, even an uncrowded bus is unsafe.

    I have only ridden the 545 and B lately, and only a few times. Very few passengers, all wearing masks, but sometimes not covering their nose. I have gotten in the habit of opening a few windows whenever I get on the bus. For some reason, they’re usually all closed.

  8. “Metro is rolling out 1,400+ automated safety partitions between passengers and the driver. We’re also installing onboard mask dispensers on our busiest routes.”

    1. From Metro’s blog: “Metro is installing mask dispensers on 102 buses this month, starting with RapidRide buses on the A and F lines in south King county and 60-foot trolley buses on routes 7, 36, 43, 44, and 49 in Seattle. Metro intends to install more dispensers on other high-ridership routes in the future.”

    1. White dude resists being handcuffed, gets treated with kid gloves as he is merely escorted off the vessel. Lucky him! (Rob Hustle’s point about the risk of violence if you choose to get the cops involved is well-taken, but a) comparing the police or the US military to the 1930s/1940s German military is not a good luck, and b) Trayvon Martin’s murderer was not a cop.)

      Maybe NYPD was getting cheered for their restraint and professionalism?

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