TRENTON – Though about 500 commuters have signed a petition pushing for a mask car on NJ Transit trains and board members say it’s a good idea, the agency’s management is cool to the idea – and the conductors’ union downright opposed.

The idea of a masks-required train car, similar to a quiet car, was floated about a month ago but took on renewed urgency among some commuters once a federal judge voided the CDC's mass transit mask mandate on April 18.

It was the subject of debate at an NJ Transit committee hearing Friday, where there were clear tiers of enthusiasm about the prospect:

Three commuters advocated for the mask car, including petition organizer Adam Reich. He said the option to wear a mask among riders who aren’t wearing them isn’t sufficiently protective.

“Whether you choose to mask or whether you choose not to, everybody can have a meaningful choice,” Reich said. “Let’s try it. Let’s consider it.”

Adelle Levy said a single mask car per train is literally the least that could be done.

“So that individuals who have cancer, pregnant women, immunosuppressed individuals, high-risk individuals and those of us that have to come home to people with those conditions have a safe place to commute,” she said.

NJ Transit board members on the panel sounded sympathetic for at least a trial run.

“It seems on its face to have a good deal of appeal,” said Bob Gordon. “I think it’s a way to help us bring people back to mass transit.”

Board member Shanti Narra said she rides a bus operated by a private carrier where almost everyone still wears a mask even though it’s no longer required. She said on one recent day, everybody but two people wore them – the driver and a passenger that nobody would sit near.

“We’re not out of the woods yet and there’s so many people who are compromised themselves or live with people who are compromised that I think we cannot ignore their very real concerns,” said Narra, who is also a member of the Middlesex County Board of Commissioners.

Management was clearly reluctant.

“Obviously we’re not talking about masks bus only or masks light rail so there’s a lot of equity issues,” said NJ Transit president and chief executive officer Kevin Corbett. “A lot of operational issues, security issues.”

NJ Transit chief of police Christopher Trucillo says they would obviously enforce the rules of a mask car if they had to.

“But it would present its difficulties, quite honestly. The quiet car at times presents difficulties for officers who are called to adjudicate issues about things like volume,” Trucillo said.

The conductors’ union is strongly opposed. After a couple of years of battles over mask rules finally ended two weeks ago, Jerome Johnson, general chairman and president of SMART-TD Local 60, said the idea is ridiculous.

“We just went through two years of a pandemic, and our members have been harassed, assaulted as extreme levels,” Johnson said. “Enforcement would be very difficult.”

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Johnson said unless people are wearing N95 or KN95 masks, they’re not well protected anyway.

“This is not a good idea, and we are vehemently against it,” he said.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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