The event was part of a larger ongoing mask distribution that the group has been running throughout the pandemic. Dan Yablonksy of PPT, who was passing out masks today, said that more than 50 volunteers have distributed more than 2,000 masks since May.
Port Authority of Allegheny County has required riders and workers to wear masks while on public transit since April, but does not provide free masks to riders. Port Authority has faced continuing challenges due to COVID-19, including a 70-80% decline in ridership earlier in the pandemic. Recently, two more Port Authority employees tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases among employees to 29. (The number includes a few Port Authority employees who contracted the virus while on a medically recommended quarantine and had not worked for several weeks.)
PPT has advocated for equity and continued funding of public transit through a number of actions throughout the pandemic. In May, PPT led speakers to testify at the monthly Port Authority board meeting to discuss issues facing riders and workers.
“If Port Authority isn't going to give out masks to riders, then we are going to have to do it ourselves,” a post on the PPT Facebook page read, encouraging volunteers to sign up to distribute masks.
This week, the organization also signed on to an open letter with 61 other Pennsylvania community organizations, unions, and advocacy groups encouraging U.S. Sens. Bob Casey (D-Scranton) and Pat Toomey (R-Lehigh) to stand for a $32 billion dollar COVID-19 relief package to the HEROES Act in Congress. The letter emphasized that Pennsylvania’s public transit system is on course to run out of money by September if no additional funding is allocated.
“Nationwide, transit systems need a total of $32 billion dollars in emergency operating support, without which we will inevitably see service reductions, fare increases and transit system shutdowns. The consequences of these impacts will hurt essential workers and our Black and Brown communities the most,” the letter reads. “Transit workers and many regular riders have been hardest hit by both the economic and health consequences of COVID-19, with one quarter of essential workers in Pennsylvania making less than $30,000 annually. It’s our moral obligation to ensure that Pennsylvania runs enough transit service so that essential personnel and transit workers have sufficient space to ride safely.”
At the distribution, PPT volunteers encouraged riders to join the upcoming virtual Transit Talk with Sen. Casey, where riders and workers will share personal anecdotes and testimony to show the need for increased funding of public transit in PA. The group hopes to raise awareness about the danger that the $1.4 billion transit budget shortfall poses to transit agencies across Pennsylvania and to encourage Sen. Casey to stand up for public transit in Congress.
“This mask distribution, the state-wide sign-on letter, and the Transit Talk with Senator Casey on [July 28] are all examples of transit riders and transit workers mobilizing to keep Pennsylvania moving forward,” PPT said in a statement.
Another mask distribution day is scheduled for Monday July 27 downtown. Volunteers can sign up to hand out masks on the PPT website.
CP News Editor Ryan Deto contributed to this report.