Amid COVID-19 surge, bus drivers and riders worry mask policy is insufficient

Cedric Trice stands in front of his bus at the intersection of South Lake Park Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. (Kelly Milan/Medill Reports)
Cedric Trice stands in front of his bus at the intersection of South Lake Park Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. (Kelly Milan/MEDILL)

By Kelly Milan

Medill Reports 

The day seemed to fit the odd year — sunny and 75 in November, sweater and shorts, masks and hand sanitizer, and a CTA worker smiling.

“They call me the happiest guy in town,” said Cedric Trice, 54, a veteran bus driver for the CTA, during an interview at South Lake Park Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. “Even though the world is crumbling.”

Trice has served as an essential worker for over 20 years and continues to drive the 62 Chicago bus on Mondays and the 67 Chicago bus, which runs through South Shore, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“It makes me really nervous,” said Trice. “A lot of passengers do not wear masks and they argue with me if I tell them to.”

He’s in a tricky situation: CTA drivers are at risk of contracting the virus when passengers do not wear masks. But the transit agency’s policy is that employees shouldn’t confront unmasked riders. And if mask requirements were to be enforced, Trice worries that drivers could be physically threatened if they deny passengers entry.

Research from New York University suggests nearly a quarter of New York City transit workers have COVID-19. Pace, a suburban bus system outside Chicago, reported 152 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Pace drivers, according to its website.

With COVID-19 cases at an all-time high in Chicago and across the state, the CTA declined to provide the number of COVID-19 cases documented among its workers.

According to the CTA, a standard 40-foot bus that Trice drives is allowed 15 passengers. Trice said he gets at least five mask-less riders a day, which means he is exposed to about 25 mask-less riders in a given work week.

“They treat us so bad,” Trice said. “We are essential workers, and the number of people who ride the bus each day is putting our lives at risk.”

“If I am required to wear a mask, my passengers should too,” he continued.

On June 21, passengers were directed to board and exit through the rear doors of all CTA buses to protect bus operators, according to the CTA’s “An Essential Key to Recovery” plan. But front-door boarding was soon reinstated once additional measures were put into place like facial covering for drivers and roped-off seating areas.

Gary Stephens, 64, a grant writer who lives in Lakeview, doesn’t work for the CTA, but he’s had the same worries as Trice. He tried a slightly unorthodox experiment one day to prove a point he’d been making in emails to the agency. First, he attempted to ride the bus shirtless wearing a mask,  but he wasn’t allowed to board. When Stephens attempted to enter the bus with his shirt on and without a mask, however, he was let on without a problem.

CTA Media Representative Irene Ferradaz said CTA requires all employees and customers to wear masks on CTA property, but CTA does not require employees to risk their personal safety to confront someone not wearing a mask.

“Unfortunately we’ve seen far too many examples from our transit peers across the country in which a transit employee was assaulted and/or attacked after asking a customer to put on a mask,” said Ferradaz.

Keith Hill, president of the Local 241 Amalgamated Transit Union, has been working as a CTA bus driver for 23 years and confirmed that the CTA technically requires masks but doesn’t enforce a mask policy. Hill said it’s an uphill fight when he and his drivers confront passengers without a mask.

“It doesn’t matter if we request passengers to wear a mask or if we don’t,” Hill said. “Either way, you’re putting my drivers in a confrontational situation.”

In addition to masks, air flow decreases the risk of infection. About three weeks ago, Stephens tried to open a window on the bus to reduce the risk, and a driver yelled at him. He hasn’t ridden the CTA since.

“Every time I attempt to open a transom window on the bus, it’s locked or disabled,” Stephens wrote in an email to the Chicago Transit Authority. “Why aren’t passengers allowed this measure of protection during the pandemic?”

After six weeks of contacting the CTA feedback team by email, Stephens said, he finally got an answer. He was told windows can’t be opened because doing so would disturb “optimal humidity levels.” CTA media relations similarly said windows on CTA buses can’t be opened.

 Stephens learned New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority allows passengers to open windows on its buses and enforces a $50 fine for not wearing a mask. Although Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recommends these measures, the CTA feedback team has repeatedly rejected Stephens’ suggestions.

After exchanging emails with the CTA feedback team, attending a Chicago Transit Board of Directors virtual meeting, and joining a conference call with CTA President Dorval Carter’s chief of staff, Stephens has gotten no traction with his plea to keep bus windows open. He’s also frustrated that the agency doesn’t enforce the mask mandate.

“The conclusion I came to was they don’t care,” Stephens said. “I’m a little cynical now, and I’m not going to win this war with the CTA.”

See related: Amid COVID-19 surge, bus drivers and riders worry mask policy is insufficient

Kelly Milan is an investigative reporter and covers social justice issues at Medill.  You can follow her on Twitter at @KellyMilan5