Is it a COVID Car or Mask-Optional Car? Rail Commuters Decide

A midwestern commuter rail line found a unique, if controversial way to achieve 100 percent mask compliance on its trains: Set aside one car, though preferably not the bike car, for riders who opt to travel maskless.

September 28, 2020, 12:00 PM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


John Greenfield, editor of Streetsblog Chicago, rode his bike last week to Millennium Station and then headed to the bike car of a South Shore Line interurban train to embark on a camping trip to the Indiana Dunes National Park. He was startled to find that the bike car doubled as a "mask-optional" car.

"When I tweeted a photo of the Mask Optional Car’s sandwich board [on the station platform], there was a nearly universal reaction of disbelief and horror from transit advocates," wrote Greenfield on Sept. 23. "No one was aware of any other U.S. rail systems that are accommodating anti-maskers this way."

Greenfield notes in a Sept. 24 update that "NBC Chicago did a follow-up report on the Mask Optional Cars, including an interview with passengers who chose to ride in one of the controversial rail cars."


Courtesy of South Shore Line

After the trip, Greenfield spoke with Mike Noland, president of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which runs the South Shore Line.

Noland insisted that NICTD strongly believes in the importance of wearing masks on transit during the pandemic, and said conductors have a supply of spare masks to offer to passengers who lack facial coverings. “But as you know, there are people here who feel it’s their God-given right not to wear masks — they think it’s a government conspiracy.”

[He] argued that the Mask Optional Car policy has been a win in terms of mask compliance in the other rail carriages, and customers’ safety and comfort. (He said that the no-mask car is never supposed to be the same one as the bike car, and promised that NICTD’s chief operating officer is taking steps to ensure that mistake doesn’t happen again.)

“We had complaints (about mask non-compliance in the regular cars) before implementing this policy, but we’ve had zero issues since we put this in place,” Noland said. “We have 100-percent perfect compliance in the other cars nowadays..."

Indiana and the coronavirus

While the Hoosier State is clearly not among the midwestern states which are seeing the nation's highest number of new COVID-19 infections per capita, led by North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, respectively, according to the Washington Post's coronavirus tracker on Sept. 27, it's not performing enough coronavirus testing and its test positivity rate is too high, according to the three metrics on the New York Times testing tracker and the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center's testing hub, also on Sept. 27.

However, the state dashboard indicates a "7-day positivity rate of 4% from 09/14/2020 to 09/20/2020." The positivity needs to be below 5 percent to safely reopen, according to the World Health Organization.

Governor Eric J. Holcomb announced on Sept. 23 that he would advance the state to an updated version of the Stage 5 Back On Track Indiana plan, effective Sept. 26, and extend the state’s face covering mandate until at least Oct. 17. "The state will be removing size limits on restaurants, bars, nightclubs, gyms, conventions, museums and other large events," according to WTPA News.

Readers react

Greenfield's post has generated many comments, some of them rather heated, as comments tend to be. My favorite – from Kate Hickey:

This is so outrageously dangerous and moronic. These potential covid spreaders / potential killers, are being validated by being given the 'right' to abstain from protecting other human beings who want to stay safe from illness and death. They are being driven through Indiana and dumped off at Millennium Park and shouldn't be allowed off the train in Illinois, which has a mandate about mask wearing. J.B. Pritzker, Lori Lightfoot, why are you not putting an end to this!?

Related in Planetizen:

Hat tip to Kenyon Karl.

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