Poftak wary of taking hard policy stances at T

Gov. Charlie Baker’s order requiring all passengers on the MBTA to wear face masks or face coverings took effect last week, but don’t expect strict enforcement by the state’s transit authority.

Steve Poftak, the T’s general manager, said the order exempts people who are unable to wear a face covering because they have a medical condition. He also noted that the order doesn’t require someone claiming a medical condition to provide proof of the condition.

“We won’t be refusing rides to people who are not wearing face masks,” Poftak said, quickly adding that “obviously we want the wearing of face masks to be the normative.”

Making his first appearance on the Codcast, Poftak said the T is facing a time of great uncertainty, with fare revenue currently 10 percent of its pre-COVID level and not expected to reach 60 percent until June 2021. Budgeting over the next two years won’t be easy, and polls suggest convincing riders to return to the system will be difficult. Befitting someone who has the governor, the secretary of transportation, and an oversight board looking over his shoulder, Poftak is very cautious about adopting sharp policy stances.

Last week, during a presentation to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Poftak and state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said they were exploring ways to make bus riders feel safe once the economy starts reopening. One option under consideration is reducing the number of passengers on buses so they can social distance. Pre-COVID, a 40-foot, 39-seat bus was considered crowded when 53 passengers boarded. Poftak and Pollack are trying to develop a new definition of crowded, and they mentioned 20 passengers as a possibility.

The Chicago Transit Authority adopted a 15-passenger limit on 40-foot buses (22 on a 60-foot articulated bus), and gave drivers the authority to enforce it by allowing them to operate as drop-off only if the bus exceeded its capacity.

Poftak said the MBTA is unlikely to take a similar approach. He said the T is looking at different passenger levels to see how many buses the T would need to run to allow social distancing on board.

“It’s helping to inform our thinking,” he said. “I don’t think we’re headed in the direction of a hard cap. Driving a bus is tough work. The notion that [drivers] would also be enforcing these things I don’t think is a realistic expectation.”

Poftak said he preferred more passive approaches to keeping passenger levels down. Among those being explored: Adding more buses to high-demand routes, providing real-time information to passengers telling them when an approaching bus is crowded, using fare incentives to shift passengers to other, less-crowded modes of travel, and expanding capacity by adopting bus-only travel lanes and other measures to allow buses to operate more frequently.

Poftak was also cautious about taking a stance on MBTA oversight. The agency’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is due to sunset at the end of June. If no new board is authorized by the Legislature, oversight of the T will shift to the board of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Poftak, who previously served on the control board and the MassDOT board, said he thinks there is general consensus the T needs its own oversight board. “Dealing with MBTA issues in the context of everything else MassDOT has to do, you just can’t give it the amount of time it needs,” he said.

The general manager declines to weigh in on whether it would make sense to extend the term of the existing board instead of bringing in a new group in the midst of the current budgetary and operational struggles.

Poftak said the agency is prepared to bring up to speed whatever board is chosen to oversee the T. “This one is a complicated one,” he said. “There are many stakeholders here. We will let the process unfold.”

BRUCE MOHL


BEACON HILL

The racial inequities showing up in the data for COVID-19 cases largely disappear in the data for COVID-19 deaths. (CommonWealth) The Senate is set to take up a bill similar to one already passed by the House that would require more state reporting on demographic data of coronavirus cases and deaths, and on coronavirus deaths at nursing homes and correctional facilities. (MassLive)

Gov. Charlie Baker extols the growth and virtues of telehealth. (CommonWealth)

Labor advocates are pushing for an expansion to the state’s paid sick leave law during the pandemic. (Gloucester Daily Times)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Halina Szejnwald Brown examines how Newton bridged the divide over new housing. (CommonWealth) For a look back at how hard it is to build affordable housing in Newton, check out this story from 2016. (CommonWealth)

Taunton is facing a serious challenge as its landfill closes, which will cost the city about $1.5 million in lost tipping fees and require paying someone up to $2 million a year to dispose of the city’s waste. (Taunton Gazette)

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer is asking the City Council to take $110,000 from the city’s Community Preservation Fund and use it for emergency housing assistance. (Berkshire Eagle)

Brookline furloughed 95 town employees, bringing to 196 the total number of municipal workers who have been sidelined. (Boston Globe)

Quincy officials say warm weather brought crowds to the closed Wollaston Beach during the past week. (Patriot Ledger)

Tina Chery had to oversee a virtual version of the annual Mother’s Day fundraising walk her anti-violence organization counts on just three days after her mother died at age 79 of COVID-19. (Boston Globe)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes top 3,000. (CommonWealth)

Doctors are discovering a frightening range of effects coronavirus can have on the body, including damage to the kidneys, heart, and brain. (Washington Post)

The Quality Inn in Revere has become an isolation center for people who can’t quarantine properly at home because of crowded housing conditions. (Boston Globe)

Wired handicaps the frontrunners in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine.

The palliative care team at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford are there for patients when loved ones can’t be (Standard-Times)

Despite restrictions on visitors, UMass Memorial Health Care hospitals are letting dying patients receive one last visit from family members. (MassLive)

Families caring for dementia patients see critical routines upended by COVID. (WGBH)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The latest coronavirus hotspot? The White House. (New York Times) “It’s scary to go to work,” White House economic advisor Kevin Hassett told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” (Washington Post)

Sen. Ed Markey introduces a bill that would give Americans who earn less than $100,000 a $2,000 stimulus check. (MassLive)

A restaurant in Castle Rock, Colorado, opens for Mother’s Day and packs people in, in defiance of a gubernatorial order limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery only. (Denver Post)

ELECTIONS

With the field shaping up, Democratic US Rep. Seth Moulton of Salem is expected to face two challengers — Angus McQuilken and Jamie Zahlaway Belsito — in the September primary. (The Salem News)

Republican Tracy Lovvern, the founder of a physical therapy company, made it onto the ballot to challenge Democratic US Rep. Jim McGovern — again — in the 2nd District. (MassLive)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A White House advisor says unemployment could hit 20 percent. (Washington Post)

Crane Stationery opened on Friday in defiance of an order by North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard. (Berkshire Eagle)

Many restaurants are losing money on home delivery, and some want laws or ordinances passed capping delivery fees. (CommonWealth) Restaurant owners wonder what their reopenings will look like, and what safety precautions will be required. (Telegram & Gazette)

A Whole Foods store is Lynnfield has been closed temporarily because several workers there tested positive for coronavirus. (Boston Herald)

Massachusetts stores and customers are seeing the price of meat rise significantly due to supply chain disruptions. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

An editorial in the Daily Hampshire Gazette says Holyoke should continue on with state receivership because some progress is being made.

Not a single vendor has stepped forward with an application after the Boston Public Schools parted ways with the nonprofit that long provided the test used to determine admission to the city’s three exam schools. (Boston Globe)

Joan Wasser Gish, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care, warns that successfully reopening the economy will hinge on improving child care. (CommonWealth)

Higher ed enrollment could drop 15 percent in the coming year, according to the American Council on Education. (Boston Herald) CommonWealth explored last month what could be a looming disaster for colleges and universities.

ARTS/CULTURE

Creators, cast share thoughts on ‘Hightown,’ a new fictional Starz TV series about a fisheries officer in Provincetown. (Cape Cod Times)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

No, no, no to buy, buy, buy. Janet Domenitz of MassPIRG pushes zero waste by 2030. (CommonWealth)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Car thefts and domestic violence police calls spike in Worcester during the pandemic as other types of crimes decrease. (Telegram & Gazette)

MEDIA

Canada’s $50 million Local Journalism Initiative is funding 160 reporting positions across the country, but critics say it’s subsidizing old media and ignoring new approaches. (Nieman Journalism Lab )

PASSINGS

Carl Pitaro, Brockton’s mayor during 1980s, dies from coronavirus (Brockton Enterprise)

Adrian Walker remembers mentor and former Globe editor Ron Hutson, who died at age 72 of COVID-19. (Boston Globe)