Masks to be required on public buses in Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John
New rule, which takes effect next week, will allow transit operators to increase seating capacity to 50%
Public bus passengers in Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John will be required to wear a face mask starting next week as the three transit services increase ridership allowances to meet increased demands in the yellow phase of the COVID-19 recovery.
Only children under the age of two and those with medical conditions, such as asthma, heart or lung diseases, or claustrophobia, will be exempt under the new operational plan announced Monday by Codiac Transpo, Fredericton Transit, and Saint John Transit.
"We've been running at between six and nine passengers per bus for some time and with entering into the yellow recovery stage provincially, we're seeing more demand for our transit buses," said Meredith Gilbert, manager of transit and parking services for the City of Fredericton.
"So we're looking to have some means of increasing passenger loads but still protecting the public from COVID-19."
Requiring passengers to wear masks starting June 29 will allow the transit services to increase the passenger limit to between 15 and 20 per bus — about 50 per cent of the regular seating capacity, said Gilbert.
Mask use won't be enforced by bus drivers, she said.
"If somebody boards a bus without a mask, it will be their assumption that that person probably has a medical exemption and can't wear one."
Transit supervisors will, however, be monitoring mask use through spot checks and it could affect future service levels, said Gilbert.
"If there's a really low compliance rate overall we won't be able to [further] increase service," due to the province's requirement to wear a mask when a physical distance of six feet can't be maintained.
The transit services might even need to revert to the current passengers limits, she said. "So we're looking for people to do their part to help us improve our service levels."
Austin Henderson, a spokesperson for the City of Moncton, said if passengers comply and wear a face mask, he expects transit services will be expanded in the coming weeks. That could include longer hours and more frequent runs.
"We've had people essentially left at the side of the road because when the bus is full, we're not able to pick them up. So our driver stops and says, 'I'm sorry, we're full,' and then they have to wait until the next route.
"So obviously that presents a lot of challenges for our passengers because they're trying to get to work, trying to get to the grocery store," he said.
"So this really will be a significant change."
There will be signs advising passengers of the mask requirement posted in the buses and at some of the busier bus stops and shelters, said Gilbert.
To further promote physical distancing, most aisle seats will be blocked off and passengers will be encouraged to use the window seats, she said.
The two seats directly behind the bus drivers will remain blocked off.
Passengers are also encouraged to bring and use hand sanitizer.
The three transit services collaborated to create a unified operational plan to respond to the increase in passenger demand while also ensuring the safety of passengers and employees, said Gilbert.
The plan, created in partnership with each municipality, transit system, and the respective municipal emergency command centres, addresses service level changes while meeting provincial COVID-19 requirements, according to a statement.
Free fares in Moncton
Codiac Transpo passengers continue to ride the bus for free. The transit service hasn't installed Plexiglass barriers for its drivers yet so it's not collecting fares. It's asking passengers to board and disembark using the back door.
The Plexiglass has been ordered and should be installed in the coming weeks, said Henderson.
The transit service has been losing about $150,000 per month, he said. Ridership dropped an estimated 85 to 90 per cent in March.
Fredericton Transit and Saint John Transit have resumed collecting fares after installing Plexiglass barriers. Cash fares or monthly passes are accepted.
Increased bus sanitation continues.
With files from Shift