by David Porter, Associated Press | August 11, 2020
New York (AP) - New York's mass transit agency wants Apple to come up with a better way for iPhone users to unlock their phones without taking off their masks, as it seeks to guard against the spread of the coronavirus in buses and subways. 

In a letter to CEO Tim Cook obtained by the Associated Press, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chair Patrick Foye said riders have been seen removing their masks to unlock their phones using face-recognition technology, despite a recent update by Apple that simplifies the unlock process for people wearing masks.

Previously, an iPhone user wearing a mask would have to wait a few seconds as face recognition software tried to identify them before they eventually could enter a passcode. In response to the pandemic, Apple's iOS 13.5, released in May, automatically presents the passcode field after a user swipes up from the bottom of the lock screen. Also, Apple Pay Express Transit, introduced last year, allows riders on some bus and subway lines to pay with their iPhone or Apple Watch without having to wake the device.

"We understand Apple is working to address the issue and know that Apple has a range of technologies at its disposal as a global leader among tech companies," Foye wrote in the letter sent Sunday. "We urge Apple to accelerate the deployment of new technologies and solutions that further protect customers in the era of COVID-19."

Foye added that the MTA would be willing to collaborate with Apple on messaging to make sure users know about the recent iPhone modification. 

"There's nothing more important to us than the health and safety of our customers," Apple said in an emailed statement that noted the upgrades it has already made. "We are fully committed to continuing to work with the MTA to support their efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19." 

Safety First
Whether it is safe to ride public transit during the pandemic depends on a variety of factors, but there are ways to minimize risk. Because the virus spreads primarily through droplets people spray when they talk, cough or sneeze, the best way to reduce the spread of infection on public transit and elsewhere is to wear a mask and stay 6 feet from others, experts say. 

Like the MTA, transit systems around the world are requiring riders to wear masks and encouraging people to socially distance. Compliance could vary, especially as ridership levels start rebounding and trains and buses get more crowded. But there are other steps you can take to make trips less risky. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests traveling during non-peak hours, avoiding crowded spots in stations and stops, and skipping rows between seats when possible. Surfaces are also believed to pose a risk, though to a lesser degree, and transit systems are employing a variety of cleaning techniques. Moscow and Shanghai have experimented with germ-killing ultraviolet light and Hong Kong has deployed a robot that sprays hydrogen peroxide. In New York, subways are shut down overnight for cleaning.

Even so, the CDC says to avoid touching surfaces such as turnstiles and handrails if you can. Though much remains unknown about the virus and how it spreads, experts note there have not yet been any major outbreaks linked to transit systems. 

Bus and subway use in New York and other cities plunged during the height of the pandemic. The MTA lost more than 90 percent of its subway ridership, which along with reduced revenue at its other properties has created a fiscal hole that will take years to fill, officials have said. Ridership has slowly increased but still lags far behind pre-pandemic levels.

In addition to an aggressive cleaning program that has included the unprecedented step of shutting down the subway overnight, the MTA requires all riders to wear masks and social distance. The authority has said in recent weeks that more than 90 percent are wearing some form of face covering.