Valley Metro to require face covering if feds approve

HARLINGEN — The regional council that oversees the Valley Metro bus service has passed a resolution that mandates face coverings for passengers riding public buses.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council board voted to make masks mandatory for riders but deferred implementing the order until receiving guidance from the Federal Transit Authority on its legality.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, the council’s chair, noted Gov. Greg Abbott last month issued an executive order and during questioning afterward said masks were recommended for people out in public but not mandatory.

The governor recommended it, “but it’s not necessarily enforceable,” Darling said.

“If we’re going to require it, we need to make sure we let people know that it’s required,” Darling said in the virtual meeting of the board. “And if they don’t have one, you do provide one, is that correct?”

Valley Metro’s director of regional transit, Tom Logan, replied that the bus service will hand out masks to riders without one.

During the council meeting, Darling’s recommendation to make masks mandatory for Valley Metro riders was questioned as to its legality since the bus service is a public entity, not a private business, and thus more limited in mandating masks.

“A couple of months back, we did check with them, and they gave us concurrence about requiring masks,” Logan said in an interview on Thursday, referring to the federal agency. “We followed the governor’s office and we took a different position where we were only recommending, highly recommending” the use of masks.

Logan said a mandatory mask requirement for Valley Metro riders was dropped about a week ago in response to interpretation of the governor’s executive order of April 27.

“But from our observations, 99 percent of the time people are wearing some sort of face covering,” Logan said. “Today we’re in the process of again requesting concurrence from FTA.”

On the FTA website, a safety advisory issued five weeks ago urges all transit areas to “develop and implement procedures and practices consistent with all applicable guidance and information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure the continued safety of transit passengers and employees during this national emergency.”

But the advisory stresses “this safety advisory does not have the force and effect of law. This safety advisory is not legally binding in its own right.”

The question about forcing the use of masks by people in public was addressed by the governor during questioning about his executive order issued last month. Abbott said his order supersedes local ordinances, some of which imposed fines on people violating face mask mandates.

While the governor’s order recommends people wear face masks while out in public, it prohibits local governments from fining those who do not, even though some had passed ordinances fining violators up to $1,000.