The SFMTA deploys teams of community ambassadors to provide real-time information on routes and schedules, hand out free masks to those not wearing them and monitor compliance on face coverings and distance guidelines. The agency estimates around 86 percent of passengers are mask-compliant. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Muni drivers enforcing mask rules vulnerable to attacks

SFMTA official says transit agency is ‘incredibly concerned’ about worker safety

Assaults against Muni operators have continued with regularity throughout shelter-in-place despite reduced service and decreased overall ridership. Many of those confrontations involve masks — or the lack thereof.

One Muni driver was brutally beaten with a baseball bat in July, and his attackers allegedly also punched him in the face, spat on him and levied derisive verbal slurs about his Asian background.

The case received widespread media attention, and while it’s perhaps the most horrific examples of attacks against operators during this shelter-in-place period, it’s far from the only one.

Between April 22, when the mask ordinance was issued, and August 31, there were 31 reported assaults against operators and 120 reported verbal altercations, according to data from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Reports obtained by the San Francisco Examiner from the transit agency indicate attackers have spit on drivers, thrown drinks and other liquids on them or even hit them in the face.

“We are incredibly concerned,” SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum told the Board of Directors Tuesday.

Roger Marenco, president of Transit Workers Union Local 250a representing Muni drivers, calls operators the “backbone of San Francisco.”

“These are the men and women who are putting their health and safety on the line every day by providing service to the City and County of San Francisco,” he said. “These are our frontline employees and they need to be treated as heroes because they give life to this city by keeping it moving.”

The number of assaults from March to September has declined since the same time period over each of the last two years — not surprisingly considering the 40 percent reduction in Muni service.

Kirschbaum cautioned the directors from taking comfort in the decline.

“I really temper that because we’ve seen that with huge investments in safety,” Kirschbaum said, highlighting the steps taken by the transit agency to protect drivers and riders alike from risks posed by the coronavirus.

Muni buses are now outfitted with glass panels that separate operators from passengers to create social distance and a physical barrier, and operators are provided with personal protective equipment.

SFMTA deploys teams of community ambassadors to highly trafficked bus stops and, when trains are running, stations throughout The City, to provide real-time information on navigating the ever-changing routes and schedules, hand out free masks to those not wearing them and monitor compliance on face coverings and distance guidelines.

The transit agency watches street, stop and station surveillance video weekly to determine how many people are wearing masks when trying to take Muni.

During the week of September 7, 86 percent of Muni riders were mask-compliant while 12 percent were non-compliant. The remaining 2 percent were “partially compliant,” meaning they might have a mask but don’t wear it properly, for example.

“Most Muni customers and San Franciscans care about their community and continue to do the right thing,” SFMTA spokesperson Kristen Holland said.

But that small non-compliant percentage seems to be disproportionately responsible for much of the danger posed to operators and ambassadors.

Since April, nine of 31 operator assaults were mask-related and 63 of the 120 verbal altercations were mask-related, according to SFMTA data.

Kirschbaum said there are incidents on a nearly daily basis, and the real number of assaults and altercations is likely much higher than what’s been reported by operators.

The threat to operators has warranted concerns even outside of SFMTA leadership.

The offices of Mayor London Breed and District Attorney Chesa Boudin, along with the Police Department, hosted a town hall last month with customer-facing SFMTA workers to solicit feedback about their on-the-ground experiences and articulate The City’s commitment to their safety and wellbeing.

“Muni operators deserve to work in safe conditions without worrying about being attacked or harassed,” Sarah Owens, Deputy Press Director for Mayor London Breed, told the Examiner.

She added the mayor is “committed” to working closely with San Francisco’s law enforcement and legal teams to “hold people accountable for crimes and, most importantly, prevent violent incidents from happening in the first place.”

The rules for boarding Muni vehicles are clear: keep your distance and wear a mask.

While operators have been “actively instructed” not to take on an enforcement role, they’re often the last line of defense between someone not wearing a mask and a bus full of passengers.

“When our operators ask passengers to comply with facial coverings, it is not just a health and safety issue for the operator, it is a health and safety issue for everyone on the bus,” Marenco said.

Kirschbaum said operators are instructed to call the Transportation Management Center and wait for police officers or one of the fare enforcement officers that will begin to be on buses at the end of October to intercept the individual causing the problem.

SFMTA Director Amanda Eaken said the continued threat to operators “breaks my heart” and asked what kind of support might be available to help the “heroic” Muni operators.

In addition to the added backing of fare enforcement officials in their new, compliance-first capacity, operators will also receive customer service and de-escalation training later this fall, Kirschbaum said.

Rachel Marshall from Boudin’s office added that prosecution plays a role in deterring these kinds of crimes, too, and said the team was working closely with the SFMTA and SFPD to improve data sharing, identify crime trends and build better cases for prosecution.

“We have also assigned a specific victim advocate to work with Muni operators who have been assaulted on the job,” Marshall said. “We will continue to value their work and are dedicated to keeping them safe.”

Marenco also called on the public to play their part.

“It goes a long way when the passengers are able to assist the operator with people who choose to violate the health and safety orders regarding wearing facial coverings,” he said.

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