Ottawa transit staff are defending a new expectation for transit riders to wear non-medical masks on buses and trains in the city starting June 15, noting that anyone that can’t wear a mask or can’t get a hold of one will be given special consideration or access to extra resources when possible.
OC Transpo and city staff presented a plan to transit commissioners Monday to increase bus and train service levels in Ottawa amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
While the local transit agency has been operating at roughly 60 per cent of regular service levels for the past few weeks due to a dramatic drop in ridership numbers, the reopening of Ontario’s economy will warrant a restoration of all routes. The OC Transpo plan rolls that out in phases, starting with a more frequent summer service on June 28 and full service levels by the end of August.
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But physical distancing requirements — possible until now thanks to reduced ridership — will no longer be possible when service reaches pre-pandemic levels.
As such, OC Transpo partnered with Ottawa Public Health to craft a plan that makes non-medical masks mandatory for all riders starting June 15. It will also see front-door boarding on buses reinstated with protective shields installed on drivers’ cabs.
The plan, first presented to the public last Thursday, spurred concerns about the mask requirement.
Particularly, critics questioned whether some riders would be unable to acquire appropriate face coverings, whether disabilities or medical complications would prevent some customers from wearing a mask and if the new rule would face pushback from some members of the public.
OC Transpo boss John Manconi and Pat Scrimgeour, director of transit customer systems and planning, tried to assuage some of these concerns raised by councillors and citizen transit commissioners during Monday’s meeting.
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They confirmed that the mask requirement will be waived for anyone with a medical condition that prevents face coverings.
Ottawa’s Human Needs Task Force is meanwhile setting out to work with non-profits serving the city’s most vulnerable residents to equip as many people as possible with the masks they need to continue using the transit system.
The United Way will also be on-site at some of the larger transit hubs to sell non-medical masks at a “nominal” fee.
In the first few days of the mask requirement, OC Transpo employees on-site at transit stations will have a total supply of 200,000 disposable masks to hand out to residents who might be unaware of the new rules or maybe forgot their mask at home.
Manconi stressed that this is a limited supply meant to aid in the transition to mask-wearing — the expectation moving forward is that riders will supply their own face coverings.
Citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert questioned the enforcement of the new rules, expressing concern about OC Transpo employees facing backlash when a rider is confronted about the mask policy.
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Manconi said the focus of the new system will be education, not enforcement.
Transit employees will be trained to approach riders to explain the new rules, offer a disposable mask and answer any questions that arise. The goal is to avoid confrontation or “heavy-handed” policing of the rules.
“We’re not going to have mask police,” Manconi said.
“We’re going to be asking everybody to do their part to help the City of Ottawa get the pandemic under control.”
Ultimately, operators will not deny access to anyone that does not wear a mask on a bus or train.
Officials noted that many disabilities that prevent mask use might be invisible, and hope the new rules will be communicated clearly enough to avoid judgment or confrontation from other riders.
There were a few questions officials acknowledged they have not answered yet, such as how the mask requirement will affect customers who rely on lip-reading.
Officials also noted there will be future questions to answer about faith-based face coverings such as niqabs, and whether they are medically adequate to stem the spread of the virus.
In an effort to remove touch points throughout the transit system — and thereby reduce risk of infection — OC Transpo officials noted the city is in the process of setting up “open payment” options, which would let riders pay by tapping debit and credit cards or a mobile application.
Manconi noted that with a growing trend towards remote working comes uncertainty surrounding ridership levels post-pandemic, but open payment systems can help encourage wider transit use.
He hopes these options, which he said might be ready to roll out by the end of the year, will give OC Transpo a more stable ridership basis amid the uncertainty of the pandemic’s impact on local transit.
“Things like open payment, standardization of that in the industry helps people embrace transit and makes it easier to ride,” he said.
OC Transpo’s plan passed through the transit commission meeting with a vote of 10 to one.
River Coun. Riley Brockington and transit commissioner Michael Olsen were denied a request to split the plan into multiple votes, that they might remove the mandatory aspect of wearing face coverings. Brockington said he didn’t want OPH to have the sole authority to control when masks were no longer necessary.
At the start of the meeting, Olsen also offered his formal apologies to fellow commissioner Wright-Gilbert for comments he made last year when he suggested an odour concern in an Ottawa LRT station was a “gender equity thing.”
He said he hadn’t had the opportunity to make a public statement until now due to the cancelled transit meetings related to the pandemic and apologized to her if his comments made her, or anyone else on the commission, feel attacked or intimidated.
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