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As transit riders take masks off, RTA employees feel vulnerable: ‘We still have to stay safe’

St Charles Streetcar masked operator
Bobbi-Jeanne Misick
A streetcar passes through Lee Circle. April 7, 2020.

As New Orleans gears up for its first full-fledged festival season in three years, thousands of visitors from across the country and the world will come to town and take to the city’s buses, streetcars and ferries to reach the festivities.

They will no longer need to wear a mask to do so, after the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority announced Tuesday that its transit operators would no longer enforce its mask mandate.

But RTA operators and union members – who work in close quarters with now maskless riders – say they still feel vulnerable.

“I know this is a place where everybody likes to come and unwind and have a great time, but we still have to stay safe,” said Kory Dupree, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1560, which represents RTA employees. “We are the folks that’s transporting you guys, and we just want to go home to our families safely.”

The RTA’s announcement came after a federal judge voided a nationwide mask mandate for public transportation on Monday.

The mandate had been one of the last remaining federal pandemic rules in place. It had been set to expire April 18, but last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would extend the mandate through May 3 in order to monitor the impacts of the BA.2 subvariant of omicron, which public health experts say is highly contagious and is currently on the rise in the northeast U.S.

Then, on Monday, a federal judge in Florida struck down the travel mask mandate, writing in a 59-page ruling that the CDC had exceeded its authority and violated rulemaking procedures. The judge, Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, was appointed by former President Donald Trump. The Biden administration appealed the decision on Wednesday.

Without the Transportation Security Administration enforcing the mask mandate, RTA isn’t in a position to enforce it either, RTA spokesperson Arian Randolph said in a written statement to WWNO on Thursday. She did not respond to a question about whether or not the RTA consulted employees or involved the union in the decision.

“RTA continues to encourage the use of masks, vaccinations and boosters for its employees and our riders,” Randolph said. “This is particularly important as New Orleans approaches heightened numbers of visitors enjoying festival season.”

Randolph also noted that the RTA was one of the first transit agencies in the nation to mandate vaccinations and provide hazard pay for their frontline workers. To date, 99.6% of RTA employees and contractors have been fully vaccinated, she said.

Dupree, also a training instructor for the RTA, said he’s advised union members to keep their masks on.

Gregory Gable, a bus operator for the RTA and financial secretary for the union, said most riders he observed on Tuesday still wore masks. But he suspected that word of the mandate lifting just hadn’t gotten around quite yet.

“I don’t support the rush in judgment to do this,” he said.

RTA operators were hit particularly hard by the virus in the spring of 2020, when they continued interfacing with residents as the city became an early epicenter for COVID-19. About 1 in 8 RTA employees caught COVID-19 in early 2020 and at least three died, according to reporting from the Times-Picayune.

Two years later, those memories are still fresh on Gable’s mind as the RTA makes masks optional.

“[COVID-19] had an adverse effect on us from the very beginning,” he said. “I just don’t want to see it repeated now. I don’t think the reward is worth the risk.”

When the mask mandate was in place, RTA drivers — and public transit operators nationwide — were tasked with enforcing it for the passengers they served. It was not always an easy task.

“We can also not ignore the fact that the mask mandate required our members to deal with unruly passengers who refused to comply with the mandate as we continue to urge transit agencies to protect our members on the job,” said Amalgamated Transit Union International President John Costa in a written statement issued Tuesday.

For Robin Cooley, a board operator for the RTA, asking passengers to put on their masks had been a source of stress. But the lifting of the mandate is even more concerning for her, as she prepares to come back to work from medical leave for a complex surgery.

“Now that it’s not mandated, my life is more in jeopardy,” she said.

COVID cases in New Orleans have remained at a relative low after the omicron wave waned in February, though they have ticked up slightly in recent days. But the level of coronavirus found in the city’s wastewater — a method of surveillance testing that can detect the virus before individuals start showing symptoms — rose 700% from early to mid-April, according to reporting from the Times-Picayune last week.

Valerie Jefferson, former president of the local union chapter and former RTA employee who was fired following a dispute concerning Hurricane Ida emergency pay, urged residents and tourists who ride the RTA to keep their masks on.

“We meet hundreds and thousands of people every day,” Jefferson, the head of the local union chapter’s Women’s Caucus, said of her fellow union members and RTA operators. “Please continue to wear your masks on transit, because we have to take care of our own families and our own lives.”

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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