After more than two years, Long Island Rail Road commuters can now decide for themselves when — and where — to mask up while riding the rails. At least, officially.
Gov. Kathy Hochul lifted the state-imposed mask mandate last week, which was put in place by her predecessor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. The move affects not only the LIRR, but also the rest of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, including New York City buses and subways, as well as the Metro-North Railroad.
Where health officials once considered mask-wearing a must for those traveling in densely ridden, close-contact spaces like trains, buses and subways to curb the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, Hochul argued her policy shift keeps in step with the latest health data, and high vaccination rates.
“We’re in a far different place than we had been,” Hochul said. “We are seeing major declines in hospitalizations. We have to restore some normalcy to our lives.”
But some public health experts — like Dr. Bruce Hirsch of the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra and Northwell — are concerned the call to make masks optional may have come too soon. Especially as winter approaches.
While the spread of the virus has stabilized, one omicron subvariant considered the virus’ most contagious strain to date, “is pretty good at sidestepping from immunity and causing infection, even in people who have been infected before and vaccinated,” Hirsch said. “And I think that this will increase the amount of transmission and increase the amount of Covid infection in our area if large numbers of us are going without a mask.”
MTA officials wouldn’t say if they would consider instituting their own mask mandate, but as of early this week, haven’t taken any such steps. Instead, they pointed to a 2020 study conducted for the American Public Transportation Association that found no inflated risk of virus transmission on public transportation, “especially where specific safeguards are in place — such as face coverings, well-functioning ventilation systems, and minimal talking by riders.”
At least one of three safeguards are currently in the MTA’s control: ventilation. It’s by no means a cure-all for stopping the spread of Covid-19, but high-quality ventilation reduces the concentration of coronavirus particles in the air.
It’s a health provision that, according to spokesman Tim Minton, the MTA has fortified.
“Fresh air replaces the air in LIRR train cars once every five minutes, and air filters are in the process of being upgraded,” said Minton in a statement.
Roughly a third of the air traveling through the car is fresh air pulled from above the roof of each car where two units of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems are mounted. A key advantage of the LIRR is its many stations — 124 in total — that allows for cars to regularly slide open doors and let in fresh air.
Despite Hochul’s change, free masks will continue to be available to anyone who requests one, Minton said. The MTA says it’s distributed 56 million free masks since the beginning of the pandemic — more than 60,000 per day on average.
Hirsch says it’s important, however, for riders to remember they aren’t the only ones traveling.
“I’m imploring people to remember that there are friends, neighbors and loved ones in our immediate vicinity who may be older, who may have a weakened immune system, who may be required to take medications that diminish their immune response,” he said.
“Please wear a mask, out of courtesy and in solidarity with those people whose health is immune-compromised.”
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