Telling someone to wear a mask rarely comes without pushback or confrontation, some bus drivers in Chicago tell WBEZ.

This story also appeared in WBEZ

And that responsibly has largely fallen on them as they’re caught in a Catch-22 — not wanting to confront customers but being concerned about the safety of themselves and others.

“We put our life on the line, but the lack of power that we have to enforce the right to protect ourselves by asking people to wear a mask when they board the bus or asking them that the bus is too crowded, can they wait on the next one? We put ourselves in confrontational situations,” said Keith Hill, the president of the union that represents about 6,000 current CTA bus workers. “The concerns of safety measures is an all-time high on many different levels.”

The Chicago Transit Authority has told drivers not to argue with people who are not wearing masks, in an effort to protect the personal safety of their drivers.

“CTA puts the safety of its employees as a top priority and will not ask employees to risk their personal safety to confront someone not wearing a mask,” CTA spokesperson Brian Steele said in a statement.
For 23-year veteran driver Kelvin Gilkey, that means he’s letting on around 20 maskless riders on any given route.

“On a bus, you have no room, and they’re not social distancing themselves,” Gilkey said.

“And you’re on the bus and you’ve got seven people with no mask on, and you don’t know who’s asymptomatic or symptomatic to this virus,” he said, speaking to WBEZ while on the 66 Chicago bus on Thursday afternoon. Around him, three out of 11 riders were not wearing masks.

Gilkey said he knows upwards of 12 people personally, including coworkers and family members, who’ve died from COVID-19. He’d like to see more forceful messaging from city and state officials about better COVID-19 precautions on the CTA. He’d also like to see mask dispensers and hand sanitizer at the front of every bus.

Hill, the president of the union, reiterated that desire.
“The city and the state, the governor and the mayor are doing a great job of tackling this pandemic,” Hill said. “But we as CTA operators, we need a little bit more help. We need both of them to take a stance and just outright come out and say, make it mandatory.”

To be clear, the city and state both have said that masks are required in public spaces where social distancing is not possible — including on buses and trains.

But Hill wants stronger and more consistent publicity about the fact that it’s mandatory to wear a mask the entire time you’re on a bus.

In terms of social distancing, drivers are told not to let more than 15 people on a standard-size bus and to pass customers once they’ve hit that capacity.

Julia Gerasimenko is with the Chicago Active Transportation Alliance, which pushes for equity in public transportation.

“That puts more kind of onus on them again to be counting and keeping tabs on the number of passengers on the vehicle as well,” she said.

The group is pushing for a solution they think could have immediate impact: free masks and hand sanitizer at the front of every bus and every station.

In a statement, the mayor’s office points out that the CTA has already given “Travel Healthy” kits, with masks and sanitizer, at specific times and locations this summer.

Meanwhile Gilkey, the CTA driver, said he’ll continue to do what he can to stay safe — wearing a mask himself and praying he doesn’t contract the virus.

Mariah Woelfel is a general assignment reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @MariahWoelfel.

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

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It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.