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A transportation union president felt "relief" at mask mandate decision


We saw videos of people cheering after being told they could take off their masks on public transit. This was just after a federal judge in Florida struck down a mask mandate on public transportation, a decision that will now be appealed by the Biden administration. The Amalgamated Transit Union has called for calm amidst what they called uncertainty and confusion of the situation. John Courtney is the president of ATU Local 265, which represents bus drivers in the Bay Area of California.

Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Courtney.

JOHN COURTNEY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What was your reaction when you heard the ruling?

COURTNEY: A bit of relief in the very beginning - and then, you know, I understood that there would be complications as, you know, it pertained to implementing a policy. And, you know, to be honest, we've been dealing with so many different changes in mask mandates, policies, even with the vaccinations. It's like the - you know, it's an ever-changing playbook. And this was just another example. Some of the implementation of the policy for our bus drivers can become contentious with certain passengers. And I felt relieved that a problem might have been going away.

SIMON: Tell us a little bit about that over the past couple of years 'cause a lot of your union members were kind of put in the position of being the new marshal in town - right? - who had to tell people, you got to wear a mask.

COURTNEY: Yeah. And from the very beginning, it was the unions, the bus driver unions, who I represent. We were the ones who were very outspoken about putting personal protective equipment into the buses, including hand sanitizers and masks. And we found that there was an uptick in assaults on our bus drivers. It just created a lot of situations that put our operators in jeopardy.

SIMON: Yeah. So you feel a sense of relief right now. What if it comes back?

COURTNEY: Yeah. I mean, if it comes back, we'll welcome it, and we'll deal with it. I mean, I think it is what it is, right? You come through the door without a mask, there's no questions asked, nothing, you know? But when the front of the bus has no mask, no ride, it's pretty clear. But now that that sign's gone, the mask mandate is lifted, that has all been alleviated. But now some of our operators are worried about their health, their personal health, because they believe in the mask.

SIMON: Well, tell us about that because, of course, bus drivers can't choose who they associate with. It's anybody who comes through that door.

COURTNEY: That's exactly right. And, you know, so we have to protect ourselves. And what happens at work - someone breathes on you - you're taking that home to your family. You're thinking about that. So it's a tough situation right now for those who are out there on the front lines. Still, that hasn't gone away. And some of our operators and front-line workers are going to continue to wear the mask.

SIMON: Yeah. Mr. Courtney, what's it been like to be a public transit driver these past couple of years? We hear the job has changed. It's become even harder than usual.

COURTNEY: It really has. I've been - this is my 28th year in transportation. I spent a lot of years in maintenance. But when I came to San Jose, I became a bus driver. And I absolutely love it. It's an amazing job. And in a lot of ways, we're in a situation now where we were devalued - bus drivers, in particular, front-line workers in our industry. It's been - we've been disrespected. But, you know, by and large, we are chugging along, moving people.

The biggest challenge during the pandemic is the idea that you may be bringing something home to your family that you caught or got at the job. You take all your clothes off before you enter your house after a day's work. It's shower outside. No matter what you did, you still have it in the back of your mind, could that have been the way that my grandfather died from COVID?

SIMON: John Courtney is president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265 in the Bay Area. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

COURTNEY: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRL IN RED SONG, “MIDNIGHT LOVE”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.