The MTA is barring transit workers from wearing masks, amid rising fears that COVID-19 is spreading between New Yorkers.
Ben Valdes, an operator on the 7 train, told Gothamist that he was forced to remove his respiratory mask on Monday by a supervisor, who warned it could incite panic in riders.
"They're putting public perception over employee health once again," said Valdes, 34, who's worked for the transit agency for seven years. "I know a lot of people are saying, 'Oh the mask doesn't work,' but we have no faith whatsoever that the MTA has a plan to protect us."
New York state's second confirmed case of coronavirus was reported on Tuesday morning. Governor Andrew Cuomo said the patient is a 50-year-old New Rochelle resident who works in Midtown, Manhattan. Officials are still determining whether he took public transit to work.
On Monday, the MTA announced plans to disinfect the transit system, including “commonly touched surfaces” inside stations. They vowed that no subway car will go more than 72 hours without a deep cleaning.
In a statement to Gothamist, MTA Chief Safety Officer Pat Warren confirmed that transit employees were not permitted to wear respiratory masks, unless they are directly handling bleach or other disinfectant.
"Since a mask is not part of the authorized uniform and not medically recommended at this time they may not be worn by uniformed MTA employees," he said in a statement. "In the event that guidance from federal and state health authorities should recommend a modification of this policy, it will be reevaluated at that time.”
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has cautioned the general public to stop buying masks, stating that they have "not been proven to be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus."
Some experts believe that healthy people who wear masks might actually increase their risk of infection, since they may be more likely to touch their face.
Valdes acknowledged that the N95 mask he purchased on Amazon may not prove effective, but pointed to a CDC study which found the masks filter out at least 95% of airborne particles including large and small particles.
"There's not a definitive consensus on whether the masks work, but we should have the choice as human beings," he said.