Local leaders blame bureaucracy for keeping masks from front line workers

Front line workers are still lacking proper Personal Protective Equipment as the pandemic rages on.
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi

First responders are being denied life-saving medical equipment by a maze of bureaucratic red tape, according to a cadre of elected officials and labor leaders, who lamented that “essential workers” are forced to jump through unnecessary hoops to obtain basic face masks and rubber gloves — and often with deadly results. 

“We can’t be using a business-as-usual model when there is urgency on the ground,” said Borough President Eric Adams. 

Some New Yorkers on the front lines of healthcare, transit, and law enforcement are forced to ration supplies — including reusing protective medical masks for seven continuous days, which stands in direct violation of guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control encouraging caregivers to change masks in between rooms of infected patients.

Compounding the problem, some government bureaucrats have been reluctant to distribute supplies as-needed, for fear of running out later. 

A particularly egregious example came when MTA officials declined to provide face masks to bus drivers in Mid-march, who come in contact with hundreds of people daily — despite stockpiling over 15,000 face masks at the Flatbush Bus Depot in Marine Park, according to Transit Workers Union Local 100 Vice President JP Patafio.

The union leaders filed an official grievance against the authority on March 23, and the agency eventually ordered masks for bus operators — but not enough to ensure proper precautions were met, even as the face mask stockpile remains at the Bus Depot, according to Patafio. 

“It was just bureaucracy getting in the way of sound safety and health policies in the time of a pandemic,” Patafio said. “I think because of that, more operators got sick than should have.” 

Transit bigwigs system-wide have been fearful of their mask supply running out, and have cited CDC guidance that only healthcare professionals needed to wear masks — despite the high foot traffic that train operators and bus drivers come in close contact with. 

MTA officials only decided to ignore those guidelines and distribute over 75,000 masks to front line workers after the agency’s chairman Pat Foye tested positive for the virus himself. 

In a statement, city bus czar Craig Cipriano pointed to the widespread availability of masks through the bus system.

“Bus operators have access to new surgical masks every day and to a new N95 mask every week, and through a herculean effort the MTA, which has more employees than any transportation system in North America, is steadily increasing supply of masks even in the face of worldwide shortages,” Cipriano said. 

As of April 14, 59 MTA employees have been killed by the coronavirus, 58 of whom were New York City Transit workers. 

To combat the perceived shortage, Borough President Adams called on those in city government who have been tasked with procuring personal protective equipment to keep detailed records of their spending, and the amount of equipment they’ve purchased. 

“We can’t wait until the end of the crisis and do studies and reports about what we should have done,” he said. “We can start right-sizing the ship now.”