TransLinks’ board of directors heard an earful from delegates at a virtual public hearing Thursday (March 24) who say the transit authority lifted its COVID-19 mask mandate too soon.
The mask mandate for Metro Vancouver transit was lifted on March 11 in alignment with public health orders, with the exception of HandyDART.
Joy Russell, who says she doesn’t drive or have a car, relies on public transit to get around. She told the board she thinks it has made a “grave mistake” by rescinding the mask order.
“Now that masking is optional, the use of public transport is a health risk for me, it is not a safe place to be. I am not alone in this risk,” she said. “Everyone is at risk and no one is immune from exposure to COVID.”
For some people, Russell noted, the consequences of exposure to the “multi-system” virus is hospitalization or death. Masking, she added, should be done collectively and en masse to effectively protect the public.
“If I mask up and you do not, I am at risk and you are more greatly protected. Given this, I would like us to seriously consider how we have gone from ‘we are all in this together’ to, ‘it’s a personal choice.’”
Buses and trains are often crowded, the air quality can be poor and with the numbers of people getting PCR tests being drastically reduced, no one really knows how many are infected, she added.
“We need to protect each other,” Russell said, noting that the most vulnerable people of society – low income, poor, elderly and students, people with disabilities and those who are immune-compromised – depend on transit to go to the pharmacy or grocery store.
“Getting on the bus where everyone is masked says, ‘we’re all in this together.’”
Dr. Lyne Filiatrault is a retired emergency physician and member of Protect Our Province B.C., a grassroots organization comprised of health practitioners dedicated to “sharing accurate information” about COVID-19.
Filiatrault noted that smoking is still not allowed on public transit, because of the health risks it represents, yet what is coming out of unmasked mouths is a virus that has already infected 354,000 British Columbians, “disabled countless others through long-COVID, and so far has killed 2,975 loved ones.”
Despite people’s collective desire for the pandemic to be over, she said, COVID-19 is not yet done with us. Filiatrault told the board that in B.C., the BA.2 sub-variant now makes up more than 52 per cent of new cases and is 30 per cent more contagious than Omicron.
“We can all see what is happening now in China, in many European countries and in the United Kingdom,” she said. “It is easy to predict what will soon be happening here.”
“Crowded buses and SkyTrains create the perfect conditions for spread. Now let’s add to the mix a much more contagious sub-variant while at the same time we remove mask requirements on buses and SkyTrain. What exactly do we expect will happen here? My ask of this board is you keep mask requirements in place for the safety of all.”
By bringing back mandatory masking, monitoring air quality and adding filtration to ventilation, the doctor said, TransLink would be moving closer to meeting its obligation to customer safety “and live its value of operating safely at all times. Only when commuters feel safe will TransLink ridership recover.”
TransLink board chairwoman Lorraine Cunningham thanked the speakers for bringing their information to the board.
“Rest assured that the board will be discussing this later today,” she said.
Foreseeing changes to public health rules, Daryl Dela Cruz started a petition on March 7 calling for mask requirements on public transit in this province to continue. Four days later, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry ended mandatory mask requirements in public places.
“In the few days before she did that, more than 1,500 people signed, a number that has now grown to over 2,000 people. Today I am speaking on behalf of every one of these people to say that we want masks to be required on the TransLink system,” Dela Cruz said. “I represent regular people like you and me, but also people who have said that they are in a high-risk category or might have young kids that are still ineligible for a vaccine.
“There are no vaccination requirements,” he said, “so masks have been our only layer of protection and now that have been removed. Public transit is an ideal place for contagious diseases to spread.”
“This is a disease that spreads like wildfire.”
The board’s next quarterly meeting is June 17.