Mask-wearing is a little loose on Melbourne public transport

Key points

  • Melbourne public transport officers have spoken to more than 66,000 passengers about correctly wearing a mask in the past five months.
  • They’ve handed out more than 59,000 free masks, but only fined 58 people for non-compliance.
  • A number of Victorians spoken to by The Age said they were happy to wear masks voluntarily, but did not believe there should be a return to mandates.

As Melburnians brace for another rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations, mask-wearing on the city’s public transport network is, figuratively speaking, sitting a little below the nose.

In the past five months, authorised officers have spoken to more than 66,000 passengers on Victoria’s public transport system about their failure to meet mask requirements – but they’ve only fined 58 people for non-compliance since February 14.

Protective services officers wearing masks on a Melbourne train. Credit:Justin McManus

Victoria has more than 55,000 active cases of COVID-19, with 7,934 new cases recorded on Sunday.

The Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants became the dominant strains of COVID-19 in Victoria last week and health authorities expect a third wave to sweep through the nation in coming months.

The new data on masks on transport comes as a number of Victorians spoken to by The Age on Sunday said they were happy to mask up for “the sake of society”, but did not believe mask mandates should be reinstated.

Changes that came into effect on February 14 allow authorised officers – who often check tickets and provide passenger information – to enforce the use of masks on public transport. People can be fined $100 if they are caught on public transport without a mask.

Officers have spoken to more than 66,000 passengers about correctly wearing a mask since the rules changed earlier this year, and handed out more than 59,000 free masks.

“As we continue our pathway through COVID-19 and flu season, wearing a mask on public transport helps to keep each other safe,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Transport said.

“Passengers are currently required to wear a fitted face mask covering their nose and mouth while travelling on all forms of public transport, unless a passenger has a valid exemption.”

The Age has confirmed that protective services officers – who are part of Victoria Police – no longer hand out masks to those who might be caught without one on the train or tram.

John Bourke started wearing his mask everywhere since the surge in COVID infections and wants more government action.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“Transit police and protective services officers continue to assist with enforcing mask-wearing rules on public transport, with education a focus,” a Victoria Police spokeswoman said.

In Victoria, masks are still required on public transport and in rideshare vehicles, in high-risk settings such as hospitals and aged care facilities, and on domestic and international flights.

John Bourke, who lives in Carlton, strongly supports the re-introduction of mask mandates in shopping centres, indoors, and in busy places.

“Making it compulsory is important for the sake of society. I’ve got so many friends who are sick from COVID,” he said.

Yvonne Zhou believes masks should be optionalCredit:Wayne Taylor

But for CBD resident Yvonne Zhou, wearing a mask is something she only does when on public transport or if she is sick.

She believes masks should remain optional and says that’s a fairly common opinion among her friends.

“I’m wearing a mask [outside] because I didn’t wear makeup today,” Zhou said. “But some of my other friends think that mandates should be re-introduced.”

On Friday, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) reiterated the “shared responsibility” of minimising the impact of COVID-19.

The committee, which is the key decision-making body for health emergencies, said Australians should wear a mask when in crowded, indoor public environments, including on public transport.

“This is important to protect yourself and others,” the AHPPC said in a statement.

While the AHPPC has not made any recommendations for mask mandates to be reinstated – the committee recommended the removal of mask mandates inside airport terminals just last month – a number of doctors and epidemiologists have encouraged Victorians to wear masks in crowded areas.

Sale man Gray Galey, who was visiting Melbourne on Sunday, said while masks should be optional, there should be more encouragement from the government to wear them.

Toni Galey, from Sale, is wary of COVID infections and wears her mask in busy areas.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Both he and his wife, Toni, wear masks while indoors, regardless of whether they’re in Melbourne or their Gippsland hometown.

Since her friend died from the virus, Toni has become more concerned with the risk and more frequently wears a mask.

“I don’t want to catch COVID,” she said. “I don’t usually wear them outside, but sometimes I forget to take it off.”

Snow Yue (left) and Grace Cheng wear masks when out, but don’t think mandates should be re-introduced. Credit:Wayne Taylor

This sentiment was echoed by Snow Yue and Grace Cheng. They both choose to wear masks in busy places such as supermarkets and on public transport, but said mask-wearing should remain a choice because “different people have different ways of doing things.”

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