Masks optional on OCTA buses in wake of federal court ruling

A masked Orange County Transportation Authority bus driver in Newport Beach.
A masked Orange County Transportation Authority bus driver checks the interior before leaving on his route at the Newport Beach Transit Center in Newport Beach. On April 19, OCTA made masks optional for drivers and riders alike following a federal court ruling that struck down a nationwide public transit mask mandate.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The “No Mask, No Ride” rule on Orange County Transportation Authority buses is no more.

After a federal judge in Florida struck down a national mask mandate on Monday for planes and public transit, the local agency announced a mask optional policy effective immediately the following morning.

In accordance with Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, masking is still recommended on OCTA buses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 but is no longer required.

“Masks are also optional for O.C. Bus drivers moving forward,” said Eric Carpenter, OCTA spokesman. “OCTA has and will continue to communicate the CDC recommendations to employees and passengers.”

Teamsters Local 952, which represents about 600 OCTA bus drivers, didn’t return a TimesOC request for comment on the policy change by press time.

Since the onset of the pandemic, OCTA has distributed more than 2 million masks to riders who have needed them before boarding buses. It also installed hand-sanitizer stations on every bus as well as driver shields that partition drivers from passengers.

But the decision to make masks optional doesn’t come without concerns.

Santa Ana and Anaheim are the top cities, respectively, for ridership, as most of those who use the county’s buses for transportation are working poor. Those same cities have also been home to ZIP codes that have posted test positivity rates higher than the county average at times throughout the pandemic’s several surges.

“What we’ve seen, at least nationally, is that buses haven’t necessarily been a vector for transmission,” said Kristopher Fortin, project director for Santa Ana Active Streets. “Without these mask policies in place, we’re going to see if that’s going to hold true or not.”

OCTA’s Board of Directors claimed the agency could only provide indirect funding for marketing and promotion as 4th Street remains a contentious construction site.

A community-based coalition formed in 2013, Santa Ana Active Streets has pushed for a more equitable transit system as part of its work. The nonprofit has been supportive of recent discounted bus passes as well as the new Youth Ride Free program.

Amid the mask optional policy change, another concern of Fortin’s is how crowded buses will be.

“We’re still in a pandemic,” Fortin said. “Ultimately, it’s the health of riders that matter most.”

OCTA saw its ridership numbers plummet at the onset of the pandemic.

According to the agency, ridership has gradually returned to about 70% of what it was pre-pandemic. Bus services are back 90%.

Prior to the federal court ruling, mandatory masking on O.C. buses was to continue through May 3 in accordance with an extension of the federal mandate, which came on account of rising COVID-19 cases nationwide.

But after U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a President Donald Trump appointee, ruled against the mandate, the CDC said its order was no longer in effect.

Like OCTA, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority opted to make masks optional this week.

After the ruling, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to double-down on mandatory masking for subway and bus riders.

The U.S. Department of Justice appealed the federal judge’s decision on Wednesday after the CDC asked it to do so.

“It is CDC’s continuing assessment that at this time an order requiring masking in the indoor transportation corridor remains necessary for the public health,” the federal agency stated.

That assessment prompted L.A. County to reintroduce a public transit mask mandate that will cover buses, trains, rideshare vehicles and indoor transportation hubs through a new health order effective Friday, reversing L.A. Metro’s mask optional policy.

Should there be any return of a federal mask mandate for public transit in the future, OCTA pledges to adjust accordingly.

“We have adapted and shifted as guidance has evolved,” said Carpenter, “and we will continue to do so in line with federal and state agencies.”

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5:01 p.m. April 21, 2022: This story has been updated with new information regarding public transit masking policies in L.A. County.