The Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission said this week that mask-wearing on its city buses has a 99.9% compliance rate, a figure it has touted since as far back as July 2020, and long before this week’s order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandated masks for travelers on public transportation. The federal order, requested by President Joe Biden just after he took office on Jan. 21, went into effect at midnight Monday.
In a press statement issued Tuesday, RTC also said it is “making some minor changes to the enforcement” of its mask policy. That mask policy was implemented in June 2020 after bus drivers complained that Keolis North America, RTC’s operator, wasn’t following Governor Steve Sisolak’s statewide mask order. At the time, some RTC signage said mask wearing was “recommended” for passengers but required for drivers.
The policy changes direct the responsibility for mask enforcement to RTC security or supervisors, and away from drivers. In an internal email to Keolis’s Reno operations, dispatch and supervisory staff sent Tuesday following the federal mandate, operations manager Taquan Jackson stated, “Although the mandate [has] been escalated our operators are not to enforce this policy whatsoever.”
Instead, there’s a process in place that allows the rider to remain on the bus until security or supervisory staff arrive to enforce the policy.
“If a passenger refuses to wear a mask, the transit operator will notify dispatch, who will send either a security guard (at a transit station) or a supervisor to the location of the bus at the earliest safe opportunity. The person will be asked to either put on a mask, or choose to get off the bus,” RTC said when describing the process.
RTC added that security personnel will monitor the Fourth Street Station and Centennial Plaza to ensure compliance as well.
Drivers’ union calls policy “window dressing”
In a response to RTC’s statement, officials from Teamsters Union Local 533, which represents drivers of RTC buses, said the near-perfect mask compliance rate is a lie and that they have little faith in RTC to properly police non-compliance.
“They have been running packed buses with many passengers maskless for almost a year. That’s how drivers have been sickened to near death,” said Andrew Barbano, a union spokesperson. He added that until this week Washoe’s RTC has “refused to use their security staff to do anything,” despite such measures being implemented in Las Vegas last year.
Gary Watson, the union’s president, added that road supervisors tasked with enforcement are all driving buses and called that portion of the policy “window dressing.”
RTC’s mask mandate also includes several exemptions, including for children under 2 years of age, those for whom wearing a mask would create a workplace health or safety risk, or those with a disability who cannot wear a mask as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
That last exemption has proven difficult to police.
“When the Teamsters have raised the issue, Keolis-19 and RTC say that it’s illegal to inquire of someone’s medical condition,” said Barbano, adding that it’s a loophole the union says both RTC and Keolis exploit to avoid enforcement.
Dispute has continued for months
The call for enforcement of Sisolak’s mask mandate has been a complaint from drivers since June 2020 when the directive was ordered. In July, RTC installed dispensers on all of its buses to provide free masks for riders and Keolis spokesperson Henri Vies maintained at the time that the company was instituting safety precautions in accordance with the governor’s directives.
In September the union said safety and mask compliance was still an issue on area buses. It filed for injunctive relief and arbitration against Keolis to compel them to enforce the mask mandate.
“Our patience evaporated when we learned that a passenger was refused boarding because his pants were down but maskless passengers were allowed on the bus,” union president Gary Watson said at the time.
In response, Keolis asserted that the safety and wellbeing of its drivers and passengers was a priority. They’ve repeated that sentiment throughout the pandemic. RTC has also signed on as a partner in the regional “Mask On. Move On.” campaign to encourage mask wearing and says it has joined the American Public Transit Association’s Safety and Health Commitments Program.
But even into December Watson said the problems persisted. Reno City Council was drawn into the fray at its Dec. 2, 2020 meeting when members Neoma Jardon and Naomi Duerr offered opposing viewpoints on the situation. Jardon, who is a member of the RTC Board, said mask wearing was mandated and enforced. Duerr said she’d heard differently and that some drivers trying to enforce the measure were disciplined.
Barbano supported Duerr’s assertion.
“Drivers have been informed many, many times that they can be written up or fired for ordering passengers to wear masks,” he said, referring back to the internal email sent Tuesday as the latest evidence that enforcement is lax.
At that same council meeting Watson said the lack of mask wearing is only part of the problem. Buses are often packed with riders offering no opportunity for social distancing.
The CDC’s transportation orders do not include requirements for social distancing.
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.