Commuter Rail’s Mask-Optional ‘Dumb Ass Car’ Emblematic of U.S.’s COVID-19 Response

"I’ll admit it’s not a perfect system, but our approach is working.”
November 19, 2020, 1:00pm
Michael Noland president of south shore line wearing a mask

In early June, a small commuter railroad called the South Shore Line that runs from Chicago to South Bend, Indiana was in a bind. They wanted everyone on board to wear masks. And most of their riders, who were largely essential workers commuting to health care and first responder jobs in Chicago, wore them. But a small minority didn't, making those essential workers profoundly uncomfortable on the trains. And Indiana had no statewide mask mandate for public indoor spaces. Without one, the South Shore Line worried it didn't have legal standing to require those without masks to put one on.

"So we were left with this dilemma," says Mike Noland, the president and general manager of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District which runs the South Shore Line, "between wanting to require masks, requiring our crews to wear masks, encouraging their use, but then we had these individuals who were not complying."

So, the South Shore Line came up with a solution that, if nothing else, perfectly summarizes where the United States is at as a country in 2020. It designated the second car of every train a mask optional car. 

In Noland's telling, the policy worked well with little controversy. Mask compliance in every other car was virtually universal, conflicts with passengers declined, and even in the mask optional car people wore masks about 60 to 70 percent of the time. 

But in September, a Streetsblog Chicago writer was forced to ride in the mask optional car because it also happened to be the only car with bike racks on the train. South Shore Line said this was an error and that the bike car should never also be the mask optional one. But it alerted Twitter—Left-leaning urbanist Twitter at that—to the existence of the mask optional cars. 

Noland's railroad was accused of coddling COVID deniers. Public health experts interviewed by Streetsblog accused the railroad of "letting an ignorant public make health decisions the leadership of the South Shore Line should be providing with guidance from state government," said University of Illinois Chicago infectious disease expert Dr. Richard Novak, even though perhaps no element of the public has been more ignorant than Indiana's state government. "From a public health perspective it’s foolish."

But Noland argued they simply were trying to make the best of an imperfect situation. When Streetsblog Chicago first reported on this policy, Noland argued it was an innovative solution because the exact type of maskless passengers who make others uncomfortable would be isolating themselves. 

“Frankly, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from other transit agencies saying, ‘What a great policy; I wish we could do it,'" Noland said. "I’ll admit it’s not a perfect system, but our approach is working.”

But, according to documents obtained by Motherboard via a public records request, that wasn't quite the tone every transit agency was striking. For example, Deputy Executive Director of Metra John Milano, another Chicago-area commuter rail, emailed Noland on June 10 and asked "Let us know how the dumb ass car worked out please." 

Noland never responded to the email, but has known Milano for "many years" and thinks it was "probably a personal opinion of John, because I know him to be a strong supporter of wearing masks." Milano did not respond to an email from Motherboard, but his barb has been echoed by others who have called it, among other things, the COVID denier car. 

Last week, the foolishness came to an end when Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb finally, finally issued a statewide mask mandate for indoor public places amid spiking case counts in his state, meaning the South Shore Line can finally enforce mask wearing in all of its cars. After three days of mask requirement, Noland said there has only been one instance of a passenger refusing to wear a mask and he peacefully left the train at the next stop under transit police escort.

Now that the great experiment is over, I asked Noland what he made of the whole mask optional car situation. First, he pointed out that even when there was the mask optional car, more than 90 percent of passengers wore masks, which to him demonstrates "there's an overwhelming acceptance of wearing masks." He added that he understands where the critics are coming from, but he's also heard from passengers on other rail systems who find it frustrating when someone doesn't wear a mask. "It was a policy we put in place to try and get us through."