The Greater Portland Metro Route 1 bus waited with its doors open at the Monument Square station as Scott Berkley searched his pockets for a crumpled-up mask.
Berkley, a Portland resident, didn’t need to wear a mask while sitting at the bus stop, or in most of the stores around him, but he did need it to ride.
Although Maine’s mask mandate was lifted nearly two months ago, a federal law still requires masks on all public transportation throughout the nation, and that has led to confusion and some confrontation on public transportation – and bus drivers are feeling the heat.
“The vast majority of our riders are fully cooperative, but people are becoming less tolerant, less understanding, and more combative,” Metro bus driver Ed Knutson said. “There’s definitely been more hostility.”
Knutson, a bus operator at Greater Portland Metro since 2011, said there have been isolated instances of people refusing to wear a mask, and riders trying to explain to him that masks are no longer required because the state of emergency in Maine has been lifted.
“I try to be diplomatic with them and state the fact, if you want to ride the bus, you’re going to need a mask,” Knutson said. “I’ve worked my whole career with people, so this isn’t anything I’m not used to. But it’s definitely been a more stressful job lately.”
While riding the route 1 Metro Bus loop this week, a Press Herald reporter did not witness any confrontations or confusion surrounding the mask policy.
Buses aren’t the only places where masks are still required. Many health care settings, and even some businesses, still ask visitors to mask up. And although Maine lifted its mask mandate on May 24, health officials still recommend that unvaccinated people wear them indoors or in crowded settings. With the recent spike in cases across the country, including in Maine, some areas are beginning to reinstitute mask mandates, but they aren’t widespread yet.
As for public transit, which also includes subways, trains and airplanes, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it plans to keep its mask policy in place at least through Sept. 13.
In the meantime, it is becoming the responsibility of public transit workers to deal with an increasingly frustrated body of passengers.
According to Craig Pendelton, director of external affairs for Biddeford Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit, their bus lines have experienced delays due to the amount of time bus drivers spend getting people to put on masks, or to explain that the federal policy remains in place.
“We don’t want our drivers to be the police,” Pendelton said. “But if customers get aggressive, then they have no choice but to follow the policy in place.”
Greater Portland Metro, Biddeford Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit and Concord Coach Lines officials, seeing that fewer people have been carrying around masks, have made sure to equip their drivers with extra masks to hand out to passengers.
“We are trying as much as possible to stop conflict as soon as we can – to nip it in the bud if you will,” said Leon Parson, customer service manager at Greater Portland Metro.
Last month, Biddeford Saco Old Orchard Beach Transit put in an order for 20,000 masks to hand out on its buses.
Ben Blunt, vice president of Concord Coach Lines, which operates buses between New York and Maine, said the bus service hasn’t seen an increase in noncomplying passengers, but in the last two months they have been handing out plenty of complimentary masks.
Concord Coach Lines also has reinforced their signage around their bus stops to make sure people understand that masks are still required by federal law.
Though Maine has one of the highest vaccination rates, COVID-19 cases have been rising steadily since the beginning of the month. The same is happening elsewhere and public health experts say the surges are being fueled by the delta variant, which now accounts for up to 83 percent of analyzed cases nationwide, circulating among unvaccinated populations.
Ian McClelland, of Portland, while riding a Greater Portland Metro bus this week, said that even though he is vaccinated, he has become more concerned with the delta variant.
“Especially in higher density areas like the bus, I feel like we have to be careful,” McClelland said. “I’m on the bus for five minutes, and it’s such an easy thing to wear a mask.”
On Amtrak, there has not been an increase in an unwillingness to comply with the mask requirements, said Jason Abrams, public relations manager. He noted that passengers refusing to wear a mask can be subject to penalties under federal law, denied boarding and even banned from future travel. He said there have not been any instances of this occurring recently.