Media Center

Feb 13

Sarasota County Area Transit Agency Sluggish on Mask Mandate

Sarasota County Area Transit Agency Sluggish on Mask Mandate

SARASOTA COUNTY – The Sarasota County Area Transit Agency is beginning to enforce the use of face masks on all of its buses, a little more than a week after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the order.  

Sarasota County said it has moved as quickly as possible to implement the federal mandate, effective Feb. 1 and implemented locally on Wednesday.

But some drivers and passengers say the county has largely ignored public health safety measures throughout the pandemic and dragged its feet in taking action to require masks on its buses. These complaints were verified by the local union, which has gone back-and-forth with the county for months to require drivers and passengers to wear masks. 

"It hasn't been pretty," said Donald Turner, the president and business agent for the local 1701 ATU chapter. "They came up with every excuse in the books to tell me why they couldn't do it. They said it doesn't look good on the driver. A few months ago they even said it could be a liability. Now that they're forced to do it, they have to."

SCAT has encouraged the use of face masks for months. However, one driver estimated that as many as half of all drivers and a minority of passengers have worn them throughout the pandemic – making the county an outlier among its closest neighbors. 

Since June, the Manatee County Area Transit Agency’s entire fleet has required that all drivers and riders wear a mask.  

Until this week, some popular routes in Sarasota County, including one that travels along U.S. 41 – which have largely returned to their prepandemic ridership levels –were not equipped with signage that indicated that riders should take certain safety precautions. Information about masks and the new federal mandate was also missing from SCAT’s website as of Friday.  

Jane Grogg, the new director of SCAT, refuted assertions that the transit agency has been lax in its oversight, compliance and enforcement of public safety measures.

Grogg said that for months, buses in Sarasota County have been equipped with reminders to socially distance. The agency has implemented enhanced cleaning measures, monitored ridership numbers and added additional routes to help passengers spread out.  

“We’ve had a really good experience with the community throughout the pandemic,” Grogg said. “We’ve encouraged masks throughout the pandemic, and people generally try to spread themselves out on the buses.”  

Asked why it took more than a week to implement the federal order, Grogg said that Sarasota County’s Emergency Operations Centers had to first review the plan and prepare materials. 

“Additionally, the county administration wanted to review the legality of the order to understand how our employees might be expected to implement this order,” Grogg said.  

What the order says  

The new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order requires a new level of enforcement, telling drivers and operators to deny entry to riders who try to board without their faces covered.  

The order, which applies to airport and aboard trains and buses nationwide, says that passengers must wear masks “while boarding, disembarking and traveling on any conveyance into or within the United States,” as well as “at any transportation hub that provides transportation within the United States.”

People with disabilities who cannot wear masks are exempt, and face coverings can be removed while eating, drinking, taking medication and going through security screenings.”  

The order applies to all of SCAT’s services, included fixed routes, SCAT Plus and the Siesta Key Trolley. Masks are also required at transportation hubs and stations. 

Who will enforce it?  

Enforcement will fall to transit operators, who say they have reported increasing verbal and occasional physical attacks as they fear for their own health and well-being.  

The Amalgamated Transit Union, North America’s largest transportation workers guild, welcomes the public health order. 

Additionally, they say transit agencies should not just rely on drivers to help with compliance. They instead should work to change the culture surrounding masks, said ATU International President John Costa. 

“We are not the mask police; we drive buses,” said Costa. “There’s a fear of saying something to passengers. A fear of being assaulted, spit at or punched in the face.”  

There have been several high-profile confrontations in California, Texas and Florida.  

In May, a Miami-Dade County bus driver was spat on after he asked a passenger to wear a mask. In West Palm Beach, drivers raised concerns about transporting passengers who knowingly had COVID-19. The transit system wasn’t providing proper personal protective equipment or pushing to vaccinate drivers.  

In July, a San Francisco bus driver was beaten with a baseball bat after asking a passenger to wear a mask.  

Orlando bus operator Ismael Rivera testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month, telling members of Congress of the dangers and often lack of support from the transit agencies.  

“When someone boards without a mask, we are faced with a tough choice,” Rivera said. “Say nothing and risk that an infected rider will spread the virus, or tell them to put on a mask and risk a violent reaction.”  

Manatee County has seen few confrontations and “great compliance,” said Ogden Clark, a county spokesman.  

“It seems like our folks are taking it seriously,” Clark said.  

‘It takes individual responsibility’

One passenger said that some drivers weren’t telling riders that they were required to wear masks. One woman put on her mask on as she entered the bus. She took it off after taking her seat.

“Some of the drivers here don’t even take COVID as a reality,” said a SCAT driver who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Groggs said that all drivers will be asked to educate passengers before they board “to make sure everyone knows what the expectations are.”  

The county said it will take a team effort.  

“We’re asking the community to continue to be our partners in this,” Groggs said. “It takes individual responsibility.”

The SCAT bus driver told the Herald-Tribune that the county provides masks for its employees. However, drivers have to ask for them at dispatch. 

“For the drivers who take this seriously, I think there is a general concern that you can catch COVID. You can’t run a packed bus and not feel that there is a potential threat there,” the driver said.  

Turner, the president and business agent for the local 1701 ATU chapter, drove routes in North Port and Venice on Friday. He said he hasn't had any problems with passengers not wearing masks. 

At least 10 drivers have been infected with COVID-19 since last March. Through contract tracing, SCAT has determined that none of the drivers contracted the virus while on duty, Grogg said.  

As of Thursday, Costa, ATU’s international president, estimated that 130 union members have died of COVID-19.  

'Standing room only’  

Ridership on SCAT’s fixed-route service dipped last spring but has largely rebounded. It’s now close to 85% of its prepandemic levels. 

Some routes, like the seasonal Route 33 bus that runs through Pinecraft, travel with up to about two dozen maskless passengers headed to and from Siesta Key. The highest Sarasota COVID-19 cases are in the Pinecraft ZIP code.  

“We pack those buses to standing room only,” said the driver. “They’re not doing anything to protect the passengers. They’re doing a little bit to protect the drivers.” 

Other routes are also filled with largely maskless passengers and drivers, including Route 99, which runs from Sarasota to Bradenton. Route 17, which runs along U.S. 41, is another popular route.  

“It’s aggravating because I’m wearing my mask,” said Dan, a regular SCAT passenger, who agreed to speak to the Herald-Tribune on the condition that his last name not be used.  

“I’m often the only one on wearing a mask,” he said. “Once me and the driver were the only ones wearing a mask on a bus filled with 20 to 25 people going out to Siesta Key.”  

Drew Winchester, a county spokesman, declined to respond to the criticism from drivers and passengers. 

“Our reaction is trying to say we’re really just trying to deal with it today and make sure people are educated,’ Winchester said. “(SCAT is) taking their time with that process and asking folks to comply.”