Public transit is being called a culprit in the spread of the coronavirus, and some experts and politicians say shutting it down could be key in slowing the spread.
Reports indicate that several leaders are calling for the subway system to be shut down for a week or at least during overnight hours. As of this week, nearly 70 MTA employees have died from COVID-19. There are also concerns that the virus could be transporting from one area of the city to the other.
While ridership on New York City subways and busses is down by 90%, thousands of essential workers and others continue to use the MTA. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has enforced the order that residents use face masks in public areas especially on subways and busses.
A recent study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economic professor Jeffery Harris calls the New York City subway a “major disseminator” in spreading coronavirus infections.
“The near shutoff of subway ridership in Manhattan––down by over 90% at the end of March––correlates strongly with the substantial increase in the doubling time of new cases in this borough,” Harris said. “Maps of subway station turnstile entries, superimposed upon zip code-level maps of reported coronavirus incidence, are strongly consistent with subway-facilitated disease propagation.”
Harris also noted that local trains transfer coronavirus more so than express trains and that buses are also playing a role in transmission.
Another factor is the homeless population using the subway system to shelter-in-place. Fears are now heighted over not only the spread of coronavirus but also the risk of track fires from debris.
In a letter to Gov. Cuomo, City Council Members Robert Holden, Mark Gjonaj, Eric Ulrich and Peter Koo are calling for public transportation to be temporarily shut down for at least a week for deep cleaning.
“We have heard from our constituents, including TWU Local 100 members, who have detailed the struggles of the system during this crisis,” the letter said. “MTA employees are going to work every day with woefully inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE).”
The councilmembers added that MTA workers are dying faster and that the subway is a “primary contributor to the spread of COVID-19.” They advise that the city should partner with for-hire vehicles to give rides to essential workers and wants tolls and parking restrictions (except for no standing) lifted during the shutdown.
De Blasio said during a recent press briefing that subways and buses have to remain running in order to get essential workers to their jobs.
“We need tight social distancing standards,” he said. “I think the MTA needs to do a better job of defining really clearly what is the maximum number of people that should be on a subway car and ensuring with the NYPD there is never more than that number on a subway car.”
In a statement to the AmNews, MTA spokesman Shams Tarek said that shutting down public transit would be dangerous and could lead to more deaths.
“Even with subway ridership down more than 90%, we are making it possible for doctors, nurses, first responders, grocery and pharmacy workers, and other essential personnel to get to work and save lives,” said Tarek. “The MTA has led the nation in its efforts to protect its employees and customers, disinfecting its stations and rolling stock daily and even breaking away from federal guidance and providing hundreds of thousands of masks to our heroic workforce before the CDC recommended it.”
Speaking on a recent radio interview, TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen said that transit workers are generally concerned and fearful about bringing coronavirus home to their families. However, he said that public transit should remain running.
“I think the system is absolutely vital to society, it’s so vital to, to New York, the fabric of New York, we would not have been able to get first responders to the front lines, we wouldn’t have food in some cases, we wouldn’t have food workers at work, we wouldn’t have nurses at hospitals, we wouldn’t have home aides taking care of our elderly, in houses, but not for the public transit system,” Samuelson said. “Shutting down the system in my estimation would have caused catastrophic results in New York.”