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Local advocacy group asks Port Authority to reinstate mask mandate

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Some groups are pushing back against the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s announcement that it will no longer require people to wear masks on public transit.

After a federal judge in Florida struck down a nationwide mask mandate on aircraft and other transportation Monday, the Port Authority said masking would not be enforced for riders or employees on buses and light rail vehicles.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends that people wear masks indoors and on public transit. And advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit is asking local transit officials to reinstate masking requirements.

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PPT said a mask mandate is necessary to keep people safe on public transit amidst rising COVID-19 cases in the area.

“A number of people, maybe most of the people on the bus, will no longer be wearing masks, which means it’s no longer a safe space,” said PPT executive director Laura Chu Wiens. She noted that if only those who are most susceptible to COVID-19 wear masks, people could still be at risk for catching the disease.

She said the new rule could disproportionately harm people with disabilities and those who are immunocompromised, many of whom take public transportation.

The new mask-optional policy “requires them to negotiate between their health and access to basic services like going to the grocery store, going to work in some cases, going to see their doctors,” Chu Wiens said. “That shouldn’t be a decision that is being asked of anybody, and particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our community.”

“The decision to stop enforcing mask usage on buses doesn’t consider people like me, who are immuno-compromised,” Pittsburghers for Public Transit Board Chair Verna Johnson said in a statement. “This latest COVID-19 variant is more transmissible than any other we’ve seen, and people are still getting sick and dying from the virus. Port Authority’s choice makes me afraid to ride.”

The Port Authority did not respond to a request for comment about the policy, which it announced Monday evening.

The agency beganenforcing a vaccine requirement for workers earlier this year and has fired a number of employees who did not get vaccinated. Chu Wiens said masks are just as important for reducing the risk of transmission.

“The decision to implement the vaccine mandate, according to the Port Authority, was to promote the health, wellness, and safety of Port Authority’s workforce and the riding public,” she said. “Why would they turn around and remove the mask mandate for riders and workers?”

The implementation of the vaccine mandate has caused service disruptions and crowded buses. Chu Wiens worries that dropping the mask mandate could have similar results. If transit workers get sick, that could lead to more service disruptions and transportation problems for Pittsburghers who rely on bus and light rail.

She said the Port Authority has the right to make its own policies. She is also concerned it could be more difficult for the Port Authority to require masks in the future if it doesn’t set the policy now.

“We are asking Port Authority to fulfill its own objectives in making its facilities safe,” said Chu Wiens.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit will hold a rally downtown at 1 p.m. on April 22 to ask for service and safety improvements for riders and workers.

Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at