MTA officials are scrambling to ensure New York’s subway system doesn’t turn into a rolling petri dish for a new wave of coronavirus infections once state officials begin easing lockdown measures.
With nearly 6 million daily commuters pre-pandemic and not enough space to sneeze — let alone stand several feet apart — there’s a growing concern that a return to regular work life will make some straphangers super-spreaders.
Rules put in place earlier this month that require subway riders to wear face coverings are expected to remain in place for months to come, officials said. But even with the MTA’s best efforts, transit leaders say the public has some responsibility for containing the virus.
“Customers’ awareness of and engagement with their own safety will be key (to reopening),” said interim NYC Transit President Sarah Feinberg. “Everyone in the system will have a role to play in keeping our city healthy.”
That message isn’t reassuring to riders who will be dependent on public transportation to get to work, but fear for their health.
“I am diabetic and I am at real risk. Riding the subway is dangerous,” said Marie Balthazar, 58, a home health attendant. “People are not social distancing and the homeless are everywhere. I can’t work, I can’t even see my doctor. When the coronavirus is over, then we’ll see.”
Before the pandemic, roughly 8,268 subway train trips carried some 5.5 million riders a day, a ratio that is too close for comfort in the age of social distancing.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have reached out to health experts to determine whether straphangers can safely stand less than 6 feet apart if they’re all wearing masks.
Subway ridership has fallen by roughly 93% this month — but projections published by the MTA estimate that number will tick up to 60% by September.
In order to give those riders space, transit honchos need thousands of front-line workers who have contracted COVID-19 or been directed to quarantine to return to work. The workforce shortage has forced the MTA to reduce subway service by roughly 30% since late March.
A second wave of the outbreak could throw a wrench in that plan if more workers fall ill.
MTA heads plan to expand a program to check the temperatures of transit workers, and Gov. Cuomo on Monday announced that 1,000 MTA employees will receive antibody tests this week to estimate how many front-line transit workers have caught the disease. At least 84 MTA employees have died from coronavirus, according to officials.
Paloma Martinez, 43, a housekeeper in Brooklyn, said she was last on the subway two weeks ago — and isn’t looking forward to riding the system when the lockdown ends.
“It’s crowded, dirty and filled with the homeless. With the coronavirus it’s too much,” she said. “Eventually I’m going to have to go back to the subway. I have no choice. I have to go to work.”
The MTA has hired private contractors to ramp up its cleaning efforts to address the cleanliness issue. The agency plans to expand an initiative launched in March to disinfect each subway car and bus every 72 hours and clean surfaces in stations multiple times a day.
Transit officials have even toyed with the idea of installing hand sanitizer dispensers at every subway station — mirroring an initiative announced in Paris earlier this month — but are wary New York’s riders will damage or destroy the devices.
The state’s timeline for easing back into regular life has yet to be fully revealed. Gov. Cuomo on Monday announced that restrictions will be relaxed in some upstate areas starting May 15, but offered no timetable for downstate.
The city is also trying to address the growing number of homeless people who have turned to mass transit for shelter during the pandemic.
Late Monday, Mayor de Blasio called on the MTA to temporarily close 10 train stations — including Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue in Brooklyn, Jamaica – 179th St. in Queens and the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan — to allow for more thorough cleaning.
The MTA will require all individuals to exit trains, and homeless people will be offered services and a place to sleep by NYPD Homeless Outreach and DHS, the mayor’s office said in a statement.
“Happy the city has agreed to do more to provide safe shelter for homeless NYers as we have been asking for months. We thank NYPD for their partnership, and urge City Hall to take additional aggressive actions so we can focus on safely running transit service and not providing social services,” said the MTA’s chief communications officer, Abbey Collins.
The move comes as multiple photos and videos shared with the Daily News in recent weeks paint a troubling picture underground. On any given day in any given corner of the city’s sprawling subway, train cars are filled with people who have nowhere else to go or choose the subways over the shelter system.
The News on Monday afternoon witnessed dozens of homeless people sprawled out on train cars at Brooklyn’s Flatbush Ave. terminal at the end of the Nos. 2 and 5 lines. A pair of cops walked by the filthy cars but didn’t try to dislodge any of the riders.
Straphanger Jeremiah Macintosh, 53, said conditions have gotten much worse during the shutdown.
“It’s [bad] out here. They tried to kick me off but I got different ways to get back on,” said Macintosh, who is homeless. “I agree with them, I get off, get out, and I get on the next train. The shelters are [very bad] with coronavirus. I have nowhere else to go.”
MTA and transit union officials have over the last week blasted the city’s response to the growing subway homeless problem, which Mayor de Blasio on Thursday said was under control.
On Monday, the mayor’s statement said the city would open 200 “Safe Haven beds” starting this week “prioritized for the most vulnerable unsheltered New Yorkers living on the streets and subways.” He also reported “outreach teams” have had 17,000 “contacts” to talk about COVID-19 with the homeless, with 12 people taken for assessment. No positive cases were reported, the statement said.
“Mayor de Blasio has to direct the police to escort the mentally ill and the homeless out of the system,” said Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano. “This is a life-and-death situation, not a quality of life issue. They are posing a real health hazard and a real danger to my members — and to the essential workers who are supposed to be the only ones using the system in the first place.”
An NYPD spokesperson said in a statement that the department believes “homelessness is not a crime” and that “officers are patrolling the subways” and enforcing transit rules.