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Face masks are required on SEPTA. Now if only more riders would comply.

Overall, most riders are adhering to the policy. But there’s some work to do on the El.

SEPTA riders wait for the eastbound Market-Frankford Line at Girard Avenue Station. Face masks are required, but some riders express concern over a lack of compliance.
SEPTA riders wait for the eastbound Market-Frankford Line at Girard Avenue Station. Face masks are required, but some riders express concern over a lack of compliance.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

There’s a song and dance SEPTA riders know well.

It has no particular teacher, but the choreography is simple enough. It includes a sidestep as others shimmy by and a shuffle to the back of crowding cars. Don’t block front aisles, and don’t take up two seats, the chorus goes.

Now there’s a lyric more important than the rest: Wear a face mask. But not everyone knows this new part.

SEPTA began requiring face coverings in June, but some riders believe that the authority could do more to stress the mandate vital in slowing spread of the coronavirus. Cases in the region are rising, and social distancing aboard transit will become only more difficult as commuters return. So far, 30% to 35% of ridership is back, according to SEPTA.

“It’s just, like, very disheartening to get on the train and be surrounded by 15 to 20 people that don’t have the mask on,” said Faith Dempsey, 22, of Northern Liberties, who travels on the Market-Frankford Line. “You’re basically fearful for your life the whole time you’re on the train.”

SEPTA is receiving about 50 to 60 complaints a week regarding lack of mask compliance. It soon plans to deploy social distancing “coaches” to supplement its signage, social media reminders, and automated announcements that promote mask-wearing. The authority does not plan to involve transit police in systemwide enforcement.

“We don’t want customers on our system without masks or face coverings,” SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards said, “but we also don’t want to put our front-line employees in difficult positions leading to confrontational situations, and we don’t want our SEPTA police pulling people off our vehicles, either.”

‘Feels like they have given up’

About 81% of SEPTA riders properly comply with the face-covering policy, according to a recent analysis based on a review of video aboard vehicles. That figure dips to 63% on the Market-Frankford Line, while those not wearing a mask or wearing one improperly make up the remaining 37%.

Problems arise around midday and late evening, SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said.

Compliance issues aren’t isolated to SEPTA, or Philadelphia. The city has rolled out its own “social distancing ambassadors” to help, though it’s a sore subject for the authority after a video showing a man dragged off a bus in April for allegedly not wearing a facial covering gained widespread attention.

The incident was unfair to the passenger, said SEPTA rider Adriana Vullo, but that doesn’t mean officials should “throw their hands in the air” as a result. Vullo, 28, of Kensington, shared compliance concerns after boarding a Market-Frankford Line train where riders filled every other seat but less than half wore masks.

“I don’t have the answers,” Vullo said, “but it feels like they have given up.”

The video below contains explicit language.

Andrea Gutierrez, 24, of South Philly, was working from home at the start of the pandemic and resumed riding SEPTA to get to University City in June. Now she’s not sure when she’ll be back.

“People do not care anymore,” Gutierrez said.

Though, not all feel that way.

“Pretty much everybody’s wearing a mask; it’s just that once in a while you’ll see people without one,” Vaughn Smith, 43, of West Philly, said outside 69th Street Transportation Center. “Sometimes the kids don’t have masks — stuff like that.”

About 50% of passengers wear masks properly before or after boarding, according to surveillance tapes at some SEPTA stations, said Claire Newbern, the city’s lead COVID-19 epidemiologist. But the figure is just a representative sample of “what exists in the world,” said James Garrow, spokesperson for the Public Health Department.

While compliance may be “a little less adherent in the stations,” the issue hasn’t worsened as the weather gets hotter, Newbern said.

“It’s pretty consistent, which is nice,” she said. “I know it’s a little lower than we would like it to be, but it’s consistent.”

» READ MORE: The owner of a Philly bar pulled a gun on a passerby who warned about social distancing

It’s not just passengers apparently shirking the requirement. Tishka McFadden, 64, of Overbrook, said she’s spotted bus drivers improperly wearing masks or not wearing them at all. When asked what repercussions employees may face, Richards said that coverings are “a requirement of the job” and that the authority does “follow up” with noncompliant workers.

“They’re giving mixed messages,” McFadden said. “If I come on there, and you’re not wearing a mask, who’s to stop anybody else from not wearing one?”

Coaching riders

SEPTA revved up its social media campaign promoting mask-wearing in June and plans to boost signage and announcements. Some masks are available at customer-service locations, and there’s a PPE vending machine in Suburban Station.

Next month, the authority plans to add social distancing “coaches” — an employee-volunteer role deployed two days a week at some Center City stations to remind riders to wear masks and to encourage safe distances. The program is scheduled for four weeks, Busch said.

Transit agencies across the nation are grappling with how to respond to similar concerns. PATCO reminds riders of its new face-covering requirement through “a variety of messaging platforms,” DRPA spokesperson Mike Williams said.

Bay Area Rapid Transit, servicing the San Francisco Bay Area, leans on BART police. Passengers refusing to cover their face will be asked to leave, a spokesperson said.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York just launched “Operation Respect,” while the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has a “compliance without conflict” approach. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority boldly states it “cannot refuse to transport customers that do not have a mask or refuse to wear it” in a set of “internal guidance.”

» READ MORE: Amtrak will ban customers who refuse to wear face masks

“I think agencies are trying to strike that balance between incentives to wear masks, avoiding conflict and excessive force, and also sending a very strong signal that this is going to protect everyone,” said Ben Fried of TransitCenter, an organization aimed at improving public transit.

James Lo, assistant professor at Drexel University’s department of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering, calls masks “probably the most important part of all the prevention strategies.”

He’s not convinced, however, that requirements are enforceable. Lo stresses the importance of public education, suggesting campaigns should point to success stories.

“If everybody can buy into the type of example, it’s not like hypothetically that could work … ,” he said, “I think that will be a little bit more successful than repeating a slogan every day.”

Reaching the limit?

SEPTA can’t keep rider limits imposed on buses, trolleys, and the Norristown High Speed Line indefinitely. The authority just doesn’t have more buses to accommodate the procedure it began in April, Richards said.

“Not sure we’ll snap our fingers and all of a sudden it will happen, or it will happen more organically,” Richards said, “but right now, all of the vehicles that are available — and we are running full shifts — are out there.”

Public transportation has other advantages working in its favor to protect against spread of the coronavirus. Air swooshing in every time doors open is a benefit, Lo said, as are crews devoted to enhanced cleaning.

“There’s no one thing that can stop the spreading,” Lo said. “If we do a bunch of small things, I think we are really, really safe, actually. The problem is a lot of people are not doing anything.”

» READ MORE: Between feces and bodily fluids, the coronavirus makes SEPTA’s dirtiest jobs even tougher

As the pandemic continues, Fried said, “everything in the tool kit” should be used “toward getting people to understand how important this is.”

Some riders may have already made up their minds. “I’m not jumping back on there for a while,” Gutierrez said.

McFadden will take SEPTA “for now,” she said, but is thinking ahead.

“I think in the long run,” she said, “I’m going to get a car.”