Will riders who opt to work from home and non-mask wearers derail NJ Transit?

Jersey commuters returning to work after the July 4 holiday will get several options as transit gears back up. NY Waterways resumed modified ferry service Monday. Private commuter bus lines Martz, DeCamp and Academy added more routes this week. NJ Transit’s buses already run a regular schedule, and on July 6 the agency will offer full rail service for the first time since the pandemic shutdown.

But some question who will climb back aboard.

“Some people might not want to go back to work. They might just want to stay home and protect themselves,” said Chatham resident Brady Rouillard.

NJ Transit confirms that amongst regular rail commuters about 12% took the train, even during the lockdown. But 79% worked from home and 10% didn’t work at all, according to an April survey. The work landscape is shifting, some analysts say.

“I see at least half of the employees working some type of a telecommuting schedule. And some percent of that group may be coming into the office, but only coming in with staggered hours. So I don’t think on any given day, you’re going to see employers have 100% of their employees come back to the workplace,” said William Castellano, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Human Relations.

In fact, a survey of New Jersey businesses showed that one-third of them had either laid off or furloughed at least one employee during the lockdown. It’s unclear how many of those will be back at work anytime soon.

The review by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association showed most shops reported less than half their workforce used public transportation, but the same percentage would worry about health risks if they did. One advocate says cities overseas have proved the virus can be controlled on mass transit.

“Looking at Seoul, and Vienna and Paris, they have not been able to positively trace any particular spread or outbreak to transit, so that is good. That is a very optimistic view of how we’re going to get people back onto public transit,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign Deputy Director Janna Chernetz said. “People wearing masks seems to be one of the greatest mitigating factors in spreading the virus.”

But mask wearing is a divisive issue in the United States. One rail rider in Chatham shared what she observed on her trip.

“Half the people that I saw, couldn’t give you a number, but I did notice that people came on and didn’t have masks,” said NJ Transit commuter Susan.

“They’ve made it up to the conductors to make sure that people are wearing masks, but these conductors are afraid. They’ve had a couple of incidents over the past couple of weeks where they had conductors assaulted when they asked people to wear a mask,” said Len Resto, president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers.

Of course, it doesn’t help when riders snap photos of conductors not wearing masks either, says Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

“The staff themselves have to wear masks. We have a transit police department that’s been getting a lot of publicity. They have to help enforce the rules and I think that is NJ Transit’s prime responsibility,” Weinberg said.

An NJ Transit spokesperson said in a statement, “NJ TRANSIT takes these reports very seriously. All crew members are required to wear face coverings on vehicles. Failure to comply will result in swift and appropriate corrective action.”

Weinberg says the public won’t return unless they feel safe.