Monday marked the one-month anniversary since my last subway, and it’s been a strange, surreal 33 days since I last took the 4 train from Manhattan to Brooklyn after one final day in the office before I fully embraced my firm’s “work from home” policy. Nothing in particular jumps out about that subway ride. The 4 leaving Grand Central was slightly emptier than normal, and straphangers seemed a bit jumpier than usual. But it was nothing compared with the last bus ride I took two days later, and little did we know what the next month would bring.
The bus ride, for what it’s worth, was much worse. Since my wife and I had to move at the start of a pandemic, I had to take a last-minute trip to Home Depot on Sunday night, and I couldn’t fit the large roll of bubble wrap in a Citi Bike basket for the trip back home. So my last transit trip of 2020 was a B44-SBS on Sunday, March 15. A guy with visibly red eyes and sniffles boarded at Fulton St., and everyone on the bus skirted out of his way while we all collectively visibly flinched.
At around 9:05 p.m., I got off that bus at Nostrand Ave and St. Johns and haven’t taken a transit ride since then. I’m not an essential worker, and now isn’t the time for subway joy rides. I’ve spotted the Franklin Ave. Shuttle a few times, running without many riders. I’ve heard the IRT locals travel between Grand Army Plaza and Eastern Parkway during my late-night runs through Prospect Park. I’ve seen buses, sometimes empty and sometimes not, continuing to criss-cross the streets of Brooklyn, those blue and yellow lumbering vehicles the unsung workhorses of our transit infrastructure.
It’s profoundly weird, this feeling of disconnect from transit, a part of everyday life in New York City, as it feels to be disconnected from every other part of New York City life. I hear more ambulances than airplanes, even though my new place lines up with one of the approaches to Laguardia, more 7 p.m. applause than traffic. Only when I’m out of the city do I go weeks between subway rides, and I can confidently say I’ve never gone this long in my life without a transit ride. Even when I had a broken bone in my foot a few years ago, I had to hobble to the subway to get to a few doctors appointments. These days, most New Yorkers hardly go anywhere, and the subway feels more like a concept than the lifeblood of the city it was just a few weeks ago.
But the trains must go. In a city of 8 million, hundreds of thousands of people still need the trains to get to their essential jobs everyday, and even during a pandemic, around 500,000 people per day are relying on the MTA to get them to their patients, to their shifts at the post office, to their jobs maintaining the city’s food supplies. These are the folks who are keeping the city going even as everything else has involuntarily ground to a halt, and the transit system is getting them there. It could not be more vital.
It hasn’t been an easy few weeks for our transit system since my last post, and the podcast I recorded with Nicole Gelinas feels like a lifetime ago. At the time, it was clear that the pandemic had shot a multi-billion-dollar hole in the MTA’s budget, and the agency was reeling financially from the hit.
But now the agency is more than reeling in very personal ways. As of Tuesday afternoon, 59 transit employees have died due to COVID-19. These are the front-line workers who move the city, and they have been constantly under attack by the coronavirus since Day One. Toward the end of March, the MTA instituted an “essential service” plan that basically matched up subway service with available crews. With so many MTA workers quarantined after exposure to the virus, the MTA simply couldn’t run full service. With with ridership down approximately 93-95 percent, per MTA Chair Pat Foye’s confirmation on Tuesday, the agency can’t save money cutting service immediately amidst a crisis, and they need to maintain service to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Still, gone for now is the B train and the C, the W and Z and the 42nd St. Shuttle. Even still, these workers have fallen ill.
The MTA hasn’t escaped criticism for these deaths. At the start of the pandemic, the MTA, taking its guidance from the CDC and federal officials, barred the use of face masks, and only recently did the agency finally lift this restriction. MTA officials have defended the early guidance to me and have pointed to the CDC’s words. It’s hard to argue with that; after all, the MTA isn’t known for being ahead of any curve, and the CDC is supposed to be the be-all and end-all of pandemic response in America. But a few weeks later, the words in a recent post on The LIRR Today ring true:
Another point of contention has been MTA’s sluggishness towards the use of face masks (by supplying masks to all employees and strongly recommending/requiring their use by riders on the system) as more became known about the communicability of this virus. After originally not providing or even prohibiting the use of mask by frontline workers, the MTA relented on March 27—weeks into the pandemic—announcing that they would begin distributing tens of thousands of masks to frontline workers. MTA officials have tried to lean significantly on the notion in recent days that CDC guidance did not shift towards recommending asymptomatic people wear masks until very recently, but that doesn’t really pass muster… CDC guidance is just that, guidance—and guidance from the federal government has to be reasonably applicable to the entire country, and doesn’t account that the effects and rate of spread in places like New York might be different than in places like Topeka. Granted, the MTA should [not] be left to determine public health policy all on its own, and state and local health departments should have been more up to speed on this—but the MTA probably should have realized that having a hundred or more people crammed into small metal boxes in an already hostile environment, and then having employees sit in those boxes and breathe the same air for hours a day presented a risk level that is a fair bit beyond the norm and taken stronger precautions. And it was also the MTA who conflated CDC guidance against asymptomatic people wearing masks and turned that into a prohibition on mask use for many frontline employees. The MTA is ultimately responsible to provide a safe workplace, by protecting the health and safety of its employees, in any circumstance.
The MTA this week agreed to a $500,000 family benefit for any transit worker who died due to COVID-19. It’s the right thing to do, and my sympathies go out to every family grieving a loved one these days.
These coronavirus deaths weren’t the only underground tragedies in recent weeks as a fire — suspected as arson — tore through a 2 train near 110th Street a few weeks ago. Seventeen riders were injured and a train operator who helped rescue his passengers succumbed to his injuries. The fire was one of the more horrific intentional subway crimes in recent years, and it added to the sense of chaos and helplessness and detachment that has enveloped New York City. (Garrett Goble was later commemorated in graffiti.)
The fires and the deaths and the detachment from the regular pace of city life seem par for the course these days, and we’re months away from any return to normalcy. The MTA, as Gelinas wrote this week, is going to need a massive infusion of cash to power the city as our rebound occurs, and I’ll have more thoughts on the fiscal edge the MTA is teetering upon shortly. It’s not easy to make sense of much that happens these days, and who knows when any of us who aren’t essential workers will next ride the subway again?