Taxi and private-hire drivers surprised at change in mask-wearing rule, worried about Covid-19 transmission

Drivers surveyed said making masks optional in such a confined space increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Taxi driver Thomas Lim was taken aback when he learnt on Wednesday (Aug 24) that mask-wearing will no longer be compulsory on taxis and private-hire car rides from next Monday.

He had heard that the Government would remove indoor masking requirements in most settings, but thought transport settings such as taxis would be the last place where mask rules would change.

"I don't support it at all," he said, noting that passengers will be in a small, enclosed area for an extended period of time. "It is very bad for drivers."

The 51-year-old is among taxi and private-hire drivers who are unhappy with the impending change in mask rules. They said making masks optional in such a confined space increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission, noting that they can ferry more than 20 passengers a day.

Mr Lim said his immunity has been compromised after he contracted Covid-19 last month, adding that he still suffers from a cough and sore throat.

He is very concerned about reinfection. "I will let passengers know I prefer that they wear a mask," he said. "If they are coughing or sneezing, I'll wind down the windows to increase ventilation, but there's not much else I can do."

Other drivers said the new rule could also become a potential cause of conflict if some drivers insist that their passengers wear a mask.

In an advisory on its Facebook page, the Land Transport Authority encouraged drivers and passengers to continue wearing masks to protect one another.

Ride-hailing operators Gojek and Grab echoed this call, saying drivers and passengers should mask up if they feel unwell. Grab also advised its drivers to wind down windows to improve ventilation if passengers are agreeable. However, drivers interviewed felt that many passengers will not heed this call.

Strides driver Sherwin Tan, 40, said some passengers have already stopped wearing their masks in recent months, especially at night when he picks them up from areas such as Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa.

In the early days of the pandemic, he said he would have insisted that they wear a mask. "We close one eye now. Many people have already gotten their booster shots and most have already gotten Covid-19. Not wearing masks lets passengers feel more relaxed."

Mr Tan added that he will spray disinfectant on the car seats after dropping off each passenger, and keep his mask on to protect himself.

Cabby Ethan Ong, 38, said the Government should have left it up to drivers to decide whether their passengers should have to wear a mask.

"It creates conflict, doesn't it? Many drivers are quite kiasi (scared of dying), so what happens if they tell the passengers to wear a mask and they refuse? What then?"

With the changes, drivers cannot refuse passengers who are not masked, The Straits Times understands.

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Yeo Wan Ling, adviser to the National Taxi Association and the National Private Hire Vehicles Association, asked the public to be considerate and requested that taxi companies and private-hire platforms keep supporting drivers who fall ill.

"Unlike employees, our drivers lose income for every day they do not drive, should they be infected with Covid-19, and they would still need to pay for daily rentals and other incidentals, even if they are not on the road," Ms Yeo said.

Lawyer Yap Shikai, 27, said he does not intend to wear a mask while taking point-to-point trips unless he feels unwell, but will put it on if the driver asks him to.

"It's a prudent move to keep the mask-wearing rule for public transport," he added. "It can get quite crowded during rush hour. At least my ride won't be ruined by someone spreading germs or by someone's stale breath."

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