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April 10, 2020

SEPTA, Philly officials address viral video of police removing unmasked man from bus

Transit officials reverse policy that required passengers to wear a facial covering

SEPTA Police
Commuter travel times Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

A viral video of Philadelphia police officers forcibly removing a man from a bus in Center City prompted outrage and concern on Friday as SEPTA officials plead with riders to wear a facial covering during the coronavirus pandemic.

The video, uploaded Friday on social media, shows several officers pulling a man, who was not wearing a face mask, from a bus in the area of 11th and Market streets, SEPTA officials confirmed. After a struggle, the man was taken out of the vehicle. He was not cited or charged with a crime.

(Warning: The video below contains NSFW language and shows a physical confrontation)

"SEPTA’s main concern is the health and safety of our customers and employees," the transit authority said in a statement Friday. "To that end, SEPTA yesterday started requiring customers to wear facial coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. That policy will no longer be enforced."

SEPTA officials called the incident a "disturbance" and declined to comment about the events leading to the arrest of the man in the video. The matter remains under investigation. 

The incident followed SEPTA's drastic reduction to a "Lifeline Service Schedule" this week, shutting down numerous subway and trolley stations, limiting bus routes, suspending Regional Rail lines and directing transit police to ensure that riders only use the system for essential purposes. 

"SEPTA urges customers to wear facial coverings in an effort to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, consistent with new CDC guidelines and strong recommendations from Governor Tom Wolf," the statement continued. "While SEPTA urges riders to cover their faces, those who refuse will not be barred entry to the system."

Amid a global shortage in personal protective equipment, including both medical-grade and basic cloth masks, people have been strongly encouraged to use available materials to create washable facial coverings that help protect others from possible exposure to the virus. 

The CDC has provided step-by-step instructions on how to make a mask, both with and without sewing materials. 

At least three SEPTA operators have died of coronavirus complications during the last month, while more than 70 have been confirmed positive for COVID-19. TWU Local 234, the union representing more than 5,000 SEPTA workers, vowed this week to protect its members. 

"We are going to fight like hell to make sure SEPTA does whatever it takes to make our transit system as safe as possible for workers and the public," said union president Willie Brown. 

Philadelphia managing director Brian Abernathy addressed the video during the city's daily coronavirus briefing on Friday.

"An individual was riding the bus without a mask," Abernathy said. "The bus driver asked that individual to leave the bus or to get off the bus. He refused. The (bus driver) pulled over and called the police. The police department responded and was acting based on the bus driver's concern that the individual didn't follow direction."

Abernathy said police responded specifically to a complaint from the driver that he had kicked a man off the bus, but the man wouldn't leave.

"The police were not responding to the social distancing complaint," Abernathy said. "When a bus driver says he's kicked somebody off for whatever reason, our officers are going to support SEPTA in that effort. Especially given some of the challenges that SEPTA has faced during this crisis."

Mayor Jim Kenney, who was aware of the incident but said he had not seen the video, described SEPTA operators as "frontline, boots-on-the-ground heroes" who deserve support from the city and its residents.

"We're in strange times," Kenney said. "People are reacting in strange ways, but I don't blame the bus driver. He or she is on an eight-hour shift, or more, and wants to feel safe and make sure that the other riders are safe. As long as there wasn't anything untoward in the operation of removing the person, I don't have a problem with it."

Philadelphia police officers have been empowered to use their discretion to issue $100 citations to individuals who fail to disperse or cooperate when asked to follow the city's guidelines. 

"Don't expect me to agree with (police) going out to a park and arresting 100 people," Kenney said. "That's the other end of the spectrum." 

Earlier this week, Kenney said that closing city parks is "not off the table," however, if it becomes necessary based on the state of the crisis and the behavior of city residents. New Jersey closed all state and county parks this week as part of the state's stay-at-home order. 

The heightened concern and tension come as Pennsylvania is projected to hit a peak in COVID-19 infections next week. The White House identified the Philadelphia area as a potential coronavirus hot spot, urging Philadelphia to ramp up social distancing efforts over the coming week. 

Philadelphia reports 33 new deaths from COVID-19

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley announced 33 new deaths from COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the city's total fatalities up to 137. Among them, 67 are nursing home residents and 89 were over the age of 70.

The city counted 522 additional positive cases and 5,793 citywide. Though the number of new cases was up from the two days prior, Farley said he remains optimistic that the trend in new daily infections is stabilizing in the area of 500-550.

The apparent progress does not mean the city is prepared to scale back its restrictions and social distancing guidelines.

"If we start behaving as we did before all of this, the virus will no doubt surge again," Farley said.

Across Philadelphia, 717 patients with COVID-19 are currently being treated in city hospitals, with a total of 1,231 people hospitalized in the region. Farley said intensive care units were beginning to see a greater volume of patients, but that hospitals continue to be able to handle demand for care.

Federal resources from the city's Citizens Bank Park testing site, set to close permanently on Friday, will now be distributed to other testing sites throughout the city, Farley said.

Philly's microenterprise grant deadline nears; New funds to support arts emerge

With the help donations from the Knight Foundation, Citizens Bank, PNC Bank and PIDC, the city announced an additional $2.9 million available through Philadelphia's COVID-19 Small Business Relief Fund. The application deadline for microenterprise grants is before midnight on Wednesday, April 15.

To date, the city has received more than 6,000 applications for its initial fund of $9.25 million. Business owners also are encouraged to look into the federal Paycheck Protection Program to find another potential source of financial assistance.

Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy also has partnered with the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund to establish COVID-19 Arts Aid PHL.

The new emergency support fund, focused on the arts and culture sector in the Philadelphia region, will provide relief for individual artists, as well as small arts and culture organizations. The fund was launched with $3.45 million in support, led by a $2.5 million grant from the William Penn Foundation.

Radio station WXPN similarly created a micro-grant program, the Music Community Relief Fund, in partnership with the organizers of Philly Music Fest.

"WXPN faces fundraising needs of its own, but is committed to raising and distributing these funds with the goal of the return of the viable and vibrant local live music scene when the resolution of the current public health crisis permits," said WXPN General Manager Roger LaMay.