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NPR Health

Conflicting mask policies in Philadelphia are leaving many confusion and concerned

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Earlier this week, Philadelphia became the first major city in America to reinstate an indoor mask mandate. But less than 24 hours later, its local public transportation agency opted out after a federal judge overruled the federal mask mandate for transit. As we just heard, that decision is now being appealed by the Department of Justice, only adding to the confusion in Philadelphia. From member station WHYY, Nina Feldman reports.

NINA FELDMAN, BYLINE: Before Philadelphia's indoor mask mandate began earlier this week, subway stations, cars, buses and trolleys were some of the last remaining places you had to wear a mask. Now it's reversed. You have to wear a mask in restaurants, offices and schools but not on the subway or the bus. For many riders like Yusef Muhamed, it's easier to ignore the new rules and keep on masking.

YUSEF MUHAMED: It can be confusing, but you have to think about what's best for you. So what's best for me right now is to keep this mask on, even if they said take it off.

FELDMAN: But researchers say it's not fair to place the burden of safety solely on individuals. That's what institutions are supposed to be for. Ellen Peters studies decision-making and science communication at the University of Oregon.

ELLEN PETERS: Here, we have this really weird and confusing case where we have different people who are presumably maybe people we trust because they're coming from places of authority, but they're telling us different things. And so then the question is, who do you trust? Who do you follow?

FELDMAN: Peters says, when posed with that choice, the natural outcome is for people to lose trust altogether.

PETERS: It's going to decrease our trust in those people who are telling us what we should do and shouldn't do.

FELDMAN: Lifting the mandate on public transit may cause people to forget to take a mask with them, making them even less likely to wear one in other indoor spaces. The city's early onset indoor mask mandate actually helped slow the spread of the virus. Jennifer Kolker is the health policy expert at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

JENNIFER KOLKER: It definitely makes it all even muddier than it was, and it was pretty muddy before (laughter).

FELDMAN: Philly's regional transit authority didn't have to lift its mandate. The judge ruled the CDC couldn't require masks on mass transit, but local authorities could still choose to make their own rules. In New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, the regional transit authorities are keeping their mask requirements since buses and trains are often crowded. In Philly, transit officials say it would be harder for their employees to enforce the mask mandate without federal backing. Kolker says, whether or not you agree with it, the city's mask mandate was designed to protect those at the highest risk for serious illness. Lifting the requirement on transit does the opposite.

KOLKER: You know, people can decide if they want to go out for dinner or not. You shouldn't have to, but people can decide that. But people can't decide if they're going to take public transportation. So to me, making public transportation less safe by taking the mask mandate is really - has the potential to hurt people who are more vulnerable.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Route 17 serving South Philadelphia via 19th Street.

FELDMAN: On Tuesday afternoon, Elizabeth Black was waiting for the bus to take her home to South Philly after a doctor's appointment. She relies on public transportation and will continue wearing her mask. But she's concerned that lifting the mandate on buses will mean more people will go maskless.

ELIZABETH BLACK: I don't feel safe (laughter) because sometimes some of them don't have a mask on, you know? I'll tell you the truth. I really don't want to sit next to them. But you're sitting together and everything. So...

FELDMAN: Asked if the fear was enough to consider another form of transit, she said, like many, she doesn't have any other transportation options.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Caution - bus is turning.

FELDMAN: For NPR News, I'm Nina Feldman in Philadelphia.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say that in Chicago, regional transit authorities are keeping their mask requirements. Shortly before this report aired, the city's mask mandate on transit was lifted.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 21, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we incorrectly say that in Chicago, regional transit authorities are keeping their mask requirements. Shortly before this report aired, the city's mask mandate on transit was lifted.