Para Transpo riders at risk from unmasked passengers

"I was quite angry on behalf of the drivers. I rely on them. I appreciate them. I'm very grateful for the service the city provides. And I believe them."

Ottawa Citizen 4 minute read October 4, 2021

Elizabeth Hung Sorfleet, pictured outside her Ottawa home, is concerned about the enforcement of the city's mask mandates on Para Transpo buses. Ashley Fraser / Postmedia

Unmasked passengers are being allowed on Para Transpo buses, putting drivers and other riders at risk, many of whom are at immunocompromised and vulnerable to infection, says a former Ontario Human Rights Commissioner and regular user of the service.

Elizabeth Sorfleet said she began her own investigation after she shared a ride with an unmasked passenger last summer. The passenger had a developmental disability, so Sorfleet didn’t say anything. But afterwards she asked the driver about it.

“When I asked the driver about people coming on who refuse to wear a mask and have no medical certificate exempting them, that opened a flood gate,” she said.

Sorfleet began to survey other drivers about their experiences, eventually speaking to 32 of them.

“Of the 32, 30 confirmed, ‘Yes this is happening.’ And they said it was a daily occurrence, which is shocking.”

During her own ride with the unmasked passenger, “I felt uncomfortable, but my initial concern became magnified when I found out how common it was,” she said.

Most Para Transpo users have disabilities and many are seniors at high risk of COVID-19, she said. Some are unvaccinated children, who either have disabilities of their own or who are riding with their parents.

“But it puts the drivers at risk, too. These are people who have families. Some of the drivers have their own disability. Some are immunocompromised themselves.”

If someone complains about an unmasked passenger, it is the person complaining who has to get off and wait for another ride, she said.

Masks have been mandatory on OC Transpo buses since June 2020, but if someone claims an exemption, the drivers won’t ask for proof. And, while regular buses now have a plastic shield installed to protect the driver, that’s not possible on smaller Para Transpo vehicles. Not only does allowing unmasked passenger violate city and provincial mask rules, but it also violates the Occupational Health and Safety Act by putting drivers at risk, she says.

Sorfleet said some of the drivers said they’d been told they couldn’t refuse a passenger, nor could they complain to the media on their own.

“I was quite angry on behalf of the drivers. I rely on them. I appreciate them. I’m very grateful for the service the city provides. And I believe them.”

Sorfleet wrote letters of complaint to the mayor, OC Transpo and Ottawa Public Health. In a reply last week, OC Transpo said it was in compliance with health and safety laws and followed the guidance of the medical officer of health. But it was silent on whether unmasked passengers were being allowed to ride Para Transpo, she said.

In an emailed response to this newspaper, OC Transpo said it had worked closely with OPH to develop its COVID-19 protocols and that all passengers and employees must be masked. But it won’t ask for proof.

“If a customer claims to have a medical exemption and cannot wear a mask, they are permitted to board the bus without providing proof of the exemption to the operator,” said Jim Greer, director of transit operations. “Should customers or staff have a complaint about someone not wearing a mask, OC Transpo has a robust complaint process in place to deal with these issues.”

The service tries to schedule rides with just one passenger at a time, although that’s not always possible, he said.

“There are cases when there is more than one passenger on Para Transpo minibuses, however, OC Transpo makes every effort to keep these circumstances to an absolute minimum,” Greer said.

“All Para Transpo passengers are treated equally. If a customer has a complaint about safety or another passenger, OC Transpo will offer the complainant another trip and quickly dispatch another vehicle to get the complainant to their destination.”

Sorfleet said it wasn’t right that a passenger wearing a mask should be the one who had to get off the bus and wait for another ride. If it happens to her, she plans to refuse to get off.

“(Ottawa) brags that it was the first Canadian city to mandate wearing masks on public transit. But they’re breaking their own laws. And they’re putting us at risk,” Sorfleet said.

“I think this is a very serious situation and I can’t understand why the city is breaking its own bylaws.”