VANCOUVER -- Masks will be mandatory on Metro Vancouver's public transit system beginning later this month, officials announced Thursday.

TransLink said the new policy takes effect on Aug. 24, and will require passengers to wear "non-medical masks or face coverings while on board transit vehicles."

Bus and SkyTrain riders have been calling for a mandatory mask policy for weeks – including through an online petition that's been signed more than 13,000 times – but transit officials previously said it would be too difficult to enforce.

In a news conference Thursday, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond said enforcement is still an issue, but that the policy will be education-focused in the beginning with no penalties.

“We’re starting off with a light touch,” Desmond explained.

If enforcement is deemed necessary, Desmond said Metro Vancouver Transit Police "would be empowered to issue a fine or ask the customer to leave the system.”

The bus drivers’ union said it supports the move as a way to increase public confidence in the transit system.

“We’ve been working with them over the last number of months,” said Gavin McGarrigle, western regional director for Unifor. "People need to have confidence in the system right now. They need to know when they get on there that it’s as safe as they can (be) based on the science.”

The union is happy to see drivers aren't being tasked with enforcing the policy, McGarrigle added.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who recently endorsed mandatory mask policies on transit, said it will be especially important as more and more people get back on the buses.

"As ridership increases it's harder to maintain those physical distances consistently," she said during her COVID-19 briefing on Thursday. "I'm really pleased they've come out with this."

Desmond said TransLink is still currently at 40 per cent of its pre-pandemic ridership, and that he expects it to remain "relatively flat" throughout the summer.

There will be several exemptions to the mask requirement, including for children under the age of five, first responders engaged in an emergency, and anyone with a medical condition that makes them unable to wear face coverings.

TransLink said that Metro Vancouver Transit Police officers will have the authority to enforce the mask rule, but that the early focus will be on "awareness and education."

A similar policy is being implemented by BC Transit, which operates in dozens of communities across the province, including Victoria and Kamloops.