Ottawa will become the first city in Canada to officially require passengers and staff on its public transit system to wear masks, but no one will be barred from boarding a bus or train if they're not.
In a 10-1 vote Monday afternoon, the city's transit commission approved OC Transpo's plan to make mandatory the wearing of non-medical masks or some other sort of face covering. Only citizen commissioner Michael Olsen, who said he believes mask-wearing should be voluntary, voted against the initiative.
However, for what is being billed as a mandatory program, there appears to be little to no enforcement planned.
"We're not going to have mask police," the city's general manager of transit, John Manconi, told the commission. "Yes, we can invoke fines and so forth, but that's not what we're going to be doing. We're going to be asking everybody to do their part to help the City of Ottawa get the pandemic under control, to recover the economy, to get people to their essential places of employment and to move about the city."
Manconi said no passenger will be denied boarding on an OC Transpo bus or train, ParaTranspo mini-van or accessible taxi, although operators and other staff working at transit stations will be required to wear masks.
Most commissioners were supportive of OC Transpo's plan to return to something resembling normal service, although Coun. Riley Brockington said he was "disappointed" that Ottawa Public Health hasn't already made masks mandatory.
"I think this has taken way too long to get to us. I think that the fear of spread has always been there," he said.
Some exceptions apply
After ridership plummeted to just 15 per cent of usual levels in late March, there was plenty of room on many transit routes for passengers to distance themselves from each other. But once ridership rises above 40 per cent of normal volumes on buses and above 20 per cent on trains, physical distancing will no longer be possible and non-medical masks will become an important tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19, commissioners heard.
But OC Transpo officials were at pains during Monday's meeting to acknowledge that some passengers, such as people with asthma, might be unable to wear masks.
"Somebody may have an invisible disability that you don't know about, and we're going to take people at their word," Manconi said.
Manconi said OC Transpo will go on a communications blitz in the next two weeks, and that will continue after the mask-wearing becomes mandatory on June 15. Manconi said workers will ask passengers not wearing masks why they aren't — "Is it because they don't have access to them? Is it because the heat? Is it because we haven't informed or educated them?" — and said he's convinced most will do the right thing.
"I go to the grocery stores and yes, there's the odd little dispute, but people are very orderly, they're very respectful, they're following the rules," the OC Transpo boss said.
A limited number of masks will be given away for free the week of June 15, and the city is working on a plan with the United Way to sell masks for a "nominal" fee. As well, non-profit agencies are working with the city to help provide masks to those who may not be able to afford them.
OC Transpo will bring in other measures, such as providing hand sanitizer at stations and controlling foot traffic at the busiest locations, such as Blair and Tunney's Pasture stations.
OC Transpo is also looking at whether it would be possible to allow passengers to use other forms of touch-free payment, such as credit and debit cards, or even Google and Apple apps, to ride the transit system, but it's not clear how far off that is.
As of June 15, passengers will be allowed to use the front door on transit vehicles if necessary, though OC Transpo is still encouraging people to use the back door on articulated and double-decker buses. Lifting that restriction will open up more space at the front of the bus, including priority seating.
Phillip Turcotte, the chair of the city's accessibility advisory committee — which was not consulted about the transit agency's plan — expressed concern Monday that passengers standing at the front of the bus won't provide enough space for passengers in wheelchairs.