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FREMONT, CALIFORNIA - JULY 15: Dhaval Patel wears a mask while riding BART to work from Fremont, Calif., Friday, July 15, 2022. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
FREMONT, CALIFORNIA – JULY 15: Dhaval Patel wears a mask while riding BART to work from Fremont, Calif., Friday, July 15, 2022. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

With Bay Area COVID cases surging over the past months, BART is considering a renewed mask mandate as part of the rail agency’s seesaw effort to keep riders safe from virus spread.

Riders may be feeling whiplash after BART lifted its face-covering requirement less than two weeks ago, sparking criticism from some Bay Area epidemiologists. If a majority of the BART board approves a new requirement during a Thursday meeting, it would be the fourth change to the agency’s masking policy in a bit over three months.

BART Director Bevan Dufty, who represents parts of San Francisco, is spearheading the renewed face mask policy.

“I wish it had been overlapping and not had this kind of stop-start element,” said Dufty. “But I do believe that masked passengers give a sense of comfort — as long as they’re not below their nose — to folks that are coming back to BART.”

Only one other Bay Area transit agency — East Bay’s AC Transit — still requires masks. Los Angeles County is expected this week to bring back its indoor mask mandate as infections from the highly contagious BA.5 variant surge there.

BART’s on-again, off-again mask mandate began in April when a court in Florida voided President Joe Biden’s federal mask mandate. That allowed transit agencies across the country to drop their face covering requirements and led to scenes of airline attendants ditching masks midflight — to the horror of some travelers.

Ten days later, BART decided to extend its mask rule to July 18 amid an outpouring of calls to protect the elderly and immunocompromised who rely on BART. Although COVID rates have dipped slightly in recent days, the Bay Area’s public health metrics are worse than when BART renewed its mask policy in April with every Bay Area county now hitting the CDC’s highest tier for transmission risk.

While many public health experts support a renewed mandate as a key tool to reducing spread, some, including Monica Gandhi at UC San Francisco, question the effectiveness of mandates that allow riders to wear cloth masks that are far less effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 or contracting the disease. Well-fitting N95 and KN95 masks are the gold standards in masking.

It is also unclear if Thursday’s vote will garner a majority of the BART board. Earlier this month, Rebecca Saltzman, the board president and an advocate for stricter masking requirements in the past, said the transit agency should not be announcing mask mandates without the backing of Bay Area counties. Saltzman did not immediately return a request for comment on the upcoming vote.

If BART reinstates the requirement, the mask rule would last until Oct. 1 and require the board to consider extending the mandate again at a Sept. 8 meeting.

The policy does not include children younger than 2 and people unable to wear masks due to medical conditions.

BART’s new mask policy also raises the thorny issue of how it will enforce face coverings when everywhere from stadiums to airports have all ditched mask mandates.

BART has seen high rates of mask compliance during the pandemic, but mask-wearing has steadily dropped to 89% of riders in June, according to BART data, as the agency stopped and renewed its policies. Meanwhile, many riders complain that people often don’t wear masks at night, and riders without face coverings face little repercussions. At a board meeting in April, Ed Alvarez, the BART police chief, said seven people were issued mask citations since the start of the pandemic.

Harriet Blair Rowan contributed to this report.

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