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SEPTA’s ‘social-distancing coaches’ are the newest part of your commute

One or two coaches are posted at the biggest transportation hubs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. when ridership is highest.

Jessica Mangold, project manager with SEPTA hands out masks to riders at 69th Street Station in Upper Darby, PA on Thursday, August 13, 2020.
Jessica Mangold, project manager with SEPTA hands out masks to riders at 69th Street Station in Upper Darby, PA on Thursday, August 13, 2020.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Commuters weaving in and out of SEPTA’s 69th Street Transportation Center on Thursday morning were greeted by an unfamiliar face.

“Would you like a mask?” Jessica Mangold asked riders entering the station.

Mangold is a statistical reporting project manager at SEPTA and head of the authority’s “social-distancing coaches” — transit authority managers and administrative employees who have offered to swap their regular duties for giving out masks and gingerly promoting social distancing as more riders return to SEPTA.

“There really hasn’t been any pushback,” Mangold said. “When people take the mask from me, I thank them for taking the mask. We want this to be something that they leave not feeling pressured to do so, but that they want to wear the mask to help somebody else.”

SEPTA started requiring facial coverings in June to offer protection against COVID-19, and many riders were complying Thursday, wearing coverings of all shapes and sizes. There were blue surgical masks and neck gaiters. One wore a “Black Lives Matter” mask, while another had red pinstripes. Likely a Phillies fan.

A couple of mask-less riders rejected Mangold’s offer — including at least one man who held a mask in his hand, and a few others who pulled up coverings they wore below their noses or mouths. The scofflaws were young and old. Nobody on this day shouted out any abuse, something that has been reported at businesses trying to enforce mask rules.

But most of the SEPTA riders were receptive. Some whom Mangold didn’t notice sought her out to get a mask.

One or two coaches are posted at various stations on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 7 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m., when ridership is highest. They’re found at some of SEPTA’s biggest transportation hubs, such as the 69th Street, Frankford Transportation Center, and 15th Street Station in Center City.

The goal is to target a different transportation line each week, Mangold said, starting with the Market-Frankford Line, then the Broad Street Line, Center City hubs and, lastly, outlying Regional Rail stations. The program started Aug. 4 and is planned through Aug. 27 but could stick around after that. Conversations on whether the authority should extend the initiative, and where, are imminent, she said.

SEPTA first asked staff to step into the role last month, and now boasts nearly 100 who are willingly taking on the challenge. The “coaches” are an extension of the authority’s Ambassador program, employees deployed during events such as the Philadelphia Flower Show. The team comprises engineers, lawyers, analysts, and others within SEPTA who swap their normal duties for the new task, and receive their regular pay.

“They’re people who have full-time jobs in SEPTA management ... volunteering their time to come out here and do this,” Mangold said, “because I think it’s really important for us, because our front-line workers have been out since Day 1 of the pandemic.”

Mask-wearing will be crucial as more riders return to public transportation and social distancing becomes more difficult to achieve. SEPTA is currently at 35% of its pre-pandemic ridership on buses, trolleys, and subways.

The vast majority — about 81% — of SEPTA riders wear masks properly, according to a July analysis that looked at videos aboard SEPTA vehicles. Compliance varies, with nearly 96% wearing masks on Regional Rail, and just 63% on the Market-Frankford Line.

SEPTA expects another analysis “in the near future,” spokesperson Andrew Busch said.

Me’ira Pitkapaasi, 51, recently planned to take the El to an early-morning doctor’s appointment, but was shocked at the lack of face coverings and social distancing at the 69th Street Transportation Center. Pitkapaasi boarded a bus, instead, where she felt more comfortable.

“You can’t even walk into the [69th Street Transportation] Center without people bumping into you,” Pitkapaasi said. “Almost no one’s wearing a mask, there’s less than an arm’s length between any people. Even the SEPTA transit staff, only half of them are wearing masks.”

In training, social-distancing coaches were told to promote mask-wearing by both customers and employees, Mangold said. When asked about the issue last month, SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards said the authority does “follow up” when it knows of employees who don’t wear masks or wear masks improperly.

Signs in stations and on trains and buses, social media reminders, and automated announcements also promote mask-wearing. Announcements, however, have been halted for nearly a week after a malware attack.

SEPTA doesn’t plan to involve transit police in mask enforcement. The authority saw pushback in April after a widely shared video showed a man pulled off a SEPTA bus by police for allegedly not wearing a face covering.

Harvey Short, 53, of Delaware County, has been riding SEPTA without any problems throughout the pandemic, he said. He supports SEPTA’s latest measure.

“Especially if they ain’t close to no vaccine or nothing,” he said through his mask, “they should give out masks.”

Esther Abraham, 60, of South Philadelphia, sat waiting at the 69th Street Transportation Center protected by a mask, neck gaiter, and gloves.

Like the coaches, she carries extra masks to give out to protect herself and others from COVID-19. She said the coaches are “a good idea.”

“I’m a religious woman,” she said. “So I pray God will end this situation.”