UTA will require face coverings on all trains and buses

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A UTA bus in Downtown Salt Lake City, Aug. 6, 2019.

While the Utah Transit Authority began Saturday to comply with new face mask requirements in Salt Lake and Summit counties, it announced it will also require face coverings for riders and employees in all the counties it serves beginning Wednesday.

Those other counties include Utah, Davis, Weber, Tooele and Box Elder.

“UTA is providing face masks for riders who need them. Masks are available for pick up at UTA customer service locations and will soon be available on transit vehicles,” it wrote in a statement.

The agency added, “Many Utahns depend on the essential service UTA provides. The requirement of face coverings for riders and employees ensures UTA can continue to serve the community in the safest way possible.”

The agency is taking the action as the number of new cases in its service area has risen dramatically, leading to the mandatory face mask orders in Salt Lake and Summit counties and an order by Gov. Gary Herbert requiring them in all state facilities.

It also comes after some state legislators last week pressured the agency to take that step, saying lack of face coverings may be one reason why its ridership has remained low (while highway traffic has returned to near-normal levels), possibly because people feel buses and trains are not safe.

“I can’t think of a space that makes me more uncomfortable” than mass transit “where it’s difficult to socially distance, and you’re sharing the same air” in a small confined space, said Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-North Ogden, during a Transportation Interim Committee meeting.

But UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen replied at that time, “We’re really just following state guidelines” in not requiring face masks. “It’s just a heavy lift for us to impose that when it’s not being required elsewhere” by the state.

As Utah’s COVID-19 restrictions had eased in recent weeks, freeway traffic has returned to near normal levels, but mass transit remains way down. As of last week, it was 63% below normal for Utah Transit Authority buses, 74% for TRAX light rail and 79% for FrontRunner commuter rail.