Edmonton bus drivers 'strongly encouraged' but not required to wear masks, city says

Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, bus drivers and LRT operators in Edmonton are not required to wear a mask despite having frequent interactions with the public. 

'We’re expected to wear them on the bus, they should be too,' passenger says

Bus drivers and LRT operators are exempt from wearing a mask under the city bylaw, if they choose. (David Bajer/CBC)

Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, bus drivers and LRT operators in Edmonton are not required to wear a mask despite having frequent interactions with the public. 

Plexiglass shields around the driver's seat create a physical barrier, the city says, and therefore exempts drivers them from the city's bylaw. 

Carrie Hotton-MacDonald, acting branch manager of Edmonton Transit Service, said the city strongly encourages drivers to wear a face covering. 

"In mid-December, operators were asked to wear masks at all times, including while behind the bus shield or in the LRT cab."

In an email to CBC News last week, Hotton-MacDonald noted the city has asked the Amalgamated Transit Union to set the standard. 

"All transit staff are expected to lead by example and take all precautions, such as practising good hand hygiene, distancing from others as well as wearing masks," Hotton-MacDonald said. 

Steve Bradshaw, president of ATU local 569, said the union and the city sent out emails and messages to members. 

"I encourage it but I don't support making it mandatory," Bradshaw said. 

Although the province also requires masks be worn in indoor public places and workplaces under the current COVID-19 restrictions, there are some exceptions. 

Bradshaw likened the scenario to office workers who are allowed to remove their masks once seated at a physically distanced workstation.

"Certainly in my office environment here, the rule is you're masked anytime you're out of your desk," he said. "The driver's seat of the bus is the driver's desk."

Bradshaw did say that the shields don't provide complete protection from germs and viruses. 

"There are gaps in the security barriers so it's always safer to have the mask on when there's a possibility of getting within that two metres," he said. 

He noted that if an inspector notices an operator without a mask outside the shielded area, they would be reported and may be subject to discipline. 

Setting an example

Some members of the public have questioned why bus drivers are excluded from the masking requirement. 

Stan Matthews works at a coffee shop in Century Park and lives in Old Strathcona. He takes the No. 4 bus and the LRT to get to work and back. 

"We're expected to wear them on the bus, they should be too," Matthews said. 

Matthews acknowledged that the plexiglass isolates the driver to some degree but doesn't completely separate passengers from the operator. 

"There's still interaction there," Matthews said. "It still makes me feel more comfortable any time I see somebody wearing a mask."

Matthews said of the drivers he observes, only about half wear masks. 

Stan Matthews takes transit to get to work and thinks bus drivers should have to wear masks as well. (David Bajer/CBC)

Tyrone Alexis-Vagley also takes transit to get to work and said he thinks more drivers are going without a mask than those who do.

"It's kind of like a hypocritical kind of thing," Alexis-Vagley said. "If you're not going to show that you're wearing your mask, why should I wear my mask?"

He said he'd like to see masks become mandatory for public transit operators. 

Councillor surprised 

Some city councillors have asked city managers to make the masking requirement mandatory for transit operators.

Coun. Bev Esslinger told CBC News she's heard concerns from constituents. 

"They just feel safer if everyone was wearing a mask," Esslinger said in an interview Friday. "People felt uncomfortable even though they're behind the shield, that they're not wearing masks." 

During an emergency advisory committee meeting last week, Esslinger asked the deputy manager of city operations, Gord Cebryk, whether masks were mandatory for transit operators.

Cebryk initially said they were mandatory but the city later revised that message and said it's ultimately up to the union to insist on the requirement. 

"It surprises me and it's disappointing because I thought we'd been really clear that it would be an example, wearing masks," Esslinger said.  

Edmonton Transit Service said between Aug. 1 and Jan. 7, the city gave out nearly 2,250 warnings and more than 60 tickets at transit stations and vehicles under the face-covering bylaw. 

As for complaints, warnings or tickets to ETS drivers, the director of bus operations, Ryan Birch, said that information remains confidential.

"Each situation would be investigated internally on a case-by-case basis, and results would not be disclosed," Birch said in an email. 

He said some operators may have valid exemptions under the bylaw and that the city has a duty under the collective agreement to accommodate those requirements.

Matthews said he believes anyone working in a public environment should be as careful as possible. 

"I know that that's part of my responsibility is to wear a mask every day and to keep everybody else safe and I feel like it should kind of be the same thing with bus drivers," Matthews said. 

"When you work with the public, it's especially your responsibility right now to keep other people safe."



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