THERE ARE FACTS and there are perceptions. These are often very different things. And when you are trying to guide and inform human decision-making, perceptions often matter more than facts. Many years ago, in the midst of a typically combative election in my East Boston neighborhood, a political wise guy said to me, “What’s important is not what’s true, it’s what people believe is true.” That was said to me in the 1970s; we have seen the awful truth of it played out through social media and on the national level in ways few could have imagined.
This tension between facts and perception is proving to be a barrier to COVID-19 recovery, as certain perceptions of “what’s safe” are not in sync with the science or the evidence. This was brought into high relief on Saturday, when the Boston Globe ran two stories on the same day: one on the front page of the print edition about tourists returning to Boston that excitedly exclaimed: “They’re Back!” That story was accompanied by a photo of tourists from North Carolina (where only about 37 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated) seated in the crowded confines of the Cheers bar on Beacon Street, raising a glass in celebration. No one was masked. The small tourist attraction was described as a “standing room only” environment.
This rosy portrait of life in the largely post-vaccinated Commonwealth was not on offer in the other story on the front page of the print edition’s Metro section, where a glum headline chastised, “Mask Scofflaws on the T.” The story was accompanied by two photos of T riders, neither of which showed anyone without a mask. Indeed, every piece of evidence I have come across informs me that mask-wearing compliance on the T is very high, averaging 90-plus percent, but I digress.
Yes, there is a federal mandate still in place for riders on all forms of public transportation to wear masks. So, yes, you ought to wear a mask when riding the T. But at this point in most US urban centers, you ought to be doing that primarily to comply with the law, because there is no evidence that riding transit for a typical journey is any more or less safe than eating in a restaurant or shopping for groceries at Market Basket or Whole Foods.
There are exceptions, of course. If you are immune compromised or if you are not vaccinated you may well be placing yourself in danger by not wearing a mask. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with anyone, regardless of vaccination status, wearing a mask in certain places, as it has been shown to be helpful warding off a variety of ailments traveling via droplets or aerosols. That’s one reason why the flu was largely a non-issue last season; the mask-wearing helped with that too. But by and large, in a metro Boston community with full vaccination rates exceeding 60 percent the need to behave as if it is June 2020 is no longer necessary. I’m not saying that as an armchair pundit; that is what the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is saying with its official messaging and it’s what Gov. Charlie Baker is saying by allowing the recent reopenings.
During the initial waves of the pandemic in the United States, before vaccines were available, there were four guideposts to personal safety: protection (wear a mask), proximity (keep a 6 foot distance), ventilation (outdoors is safer than indoors), and duration (how long you are in contact with another person or people). It was thought early on that touching surfaces was dangerous, but we have learned that the virus is spread almost always by inhalation of droplets or aerosolized particles.
Are those guideposts still relevant to fully vaccinated people in a largely vaccinated environment? The CDC’s answer is no, the vaccines are so powerfully efficacious that there is no reasonable risk to one’s health being in proximity to others or being without a mask. Why, then, keep the mask mandate on all forms of public transportation?
Consider a typical transit journey in the context of the guideposts I mentioned. Duration is probably less than the typical duration of dining out, or about the same or less as a weekly trip to the grocery store. Ventilation is very good on buses and subway and rail cars. Air on MBTA buses is replaced 10 to 13 times per hour (and the windows can be opened). Subway cars have 11 to 28 air changes per hour; commuter rail trains have about 10 air changes per hour. Proximity is no different on a typical T ride than it is in a typical restaurant (better, for sure, than a crowded standing-room-only bar). That leaves mask wearing.
Again, if you are fully vaccinated, the risk of harm to yourself is negligible. The risk of harm to others who are not vaccinated or immune compromised is not any greater than it is in a restaurant or grocery store. In fact, in terms of proximity and duration, the risk may be less. So one wonders why the mask mandate continues to make sense, particularly because the potential harm (stigmatization of public transportation) may at this point outweigh any potential good.
What we ought to know by now is that there is no such thing as a risk free life. Every time you do pretty much anything – drive a car, play sports, eat food, walk down the street, slice the Thanksgiving turkey, you name it – you are taking a risk that something bad may happen. The risks for the activities we undertake every day are so low that we accept them and go about our lives. It appears that we have reached a point in metro Boston where the COVID-19 risks are, for most people, no more or less severe than most other risks.
Without evidence of any kind, there is no reason to say that a person can safely drink at a crowded standing room only bar, where no one is masked, but that same person can’t safely take the T to get there unless everyone is masked. It makes no sense, it has no basis in the science or evidence, and it’s time to reassess the purpose of this mandate, especially as it may be sending riders the wrong message about transit safety.
James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters board.