Home MTA Politics Overnight subway closure rolled back by two hours, Gov. Cuomo announces

Overnight subway closure rolled back by two hours, Gov. Cuomo announces

by Benjamin Kabak

The overnight shutdown will shrink by half starting next week. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

As Frank Sinatra once said, “I want to wake up in the city that only sleeps for two hours.” Or something like that. Either way, New York City moved one step closer to returning to normal as Gov. Cuomo announced the overnight subway shutdown would be reduced to just two hours from 2 a.m. – 4 a.m. beginning next Monday.

The decision to allow passengers on trains until 2 a.m. comes as a part of a gradual restoration of overnight service, MTA officials said during the governor’s press briefing. It is not yet clear when passengers will be allowed back on to trains between 2-4 a.m., and I have qualms with tying overnight service to the restoration of the city’s nightlife and entertain industries. Though important, this framing again overlooks the essential workers who have tried to keep New York healthy and fed as best they could without the recognition they deserve or transit service they need. Still, the move is welcome relief for thousands of those essential workers who found themselves stranded by the ongoing shutdown and thousands of others returning to work.

While the transit news is undeniably good for workers as sports venues reopen and the curfew for bars and restaurants has been again extended to 11 p.m., the surprise announcement raises more than a few eyebrows. After all, MTA officials have said the 1-5 a.m. closures will last until the pandemic is over, and the pandemic is far from over. Still, with Gov. Cuomo making the announcement and sending out the press release, it is yet again clear who’s calling the subway shots.

“Thanks to the hard work of New Yorkers, COVID hospitalization and infection rates have continued to decrease, allowing us to begin re-opening different facets of the economy in a cautious, thoughtful, data-based approach,” Governor Cuomo said in a press release. “With the expansion of hours of operation for restaurants and bars, as well as the re-opening of cultural centers and sports facilities, we must ensure that both employees and patrons have transportation options to get them where they need to go, when they need to get there. Accordingly, the MTA will be expanding the overnight hours for subway service to ensure transportation is available, while still maintaining the organization’s comprehensive cleaning procedures.”

For its part, MTA officials thanked the governor for his support and indicated that the surface disinfectant procedures the agency claims necessitated the initial shutdowns will continue. “The suspension of service for two hours will enable the MTA to continue the most aggressive cleaning and disinfecting regimen that has led the subway to be the cleanest it has ever been,” MTA CEO Pat Foye said.

Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg echoed those sentiments. “This approach,” she said, “allows us to enhance service for customers as New York City cautiously reopens while maintaining our concerted effort to deep clean and disinfect the system. We want to be able to provide as much service as we can without compromising on our commitment to doing everything we can to keep New Yorkers safe during the pandemic.”

You might be asking at this point what the MTA can do in two hours that it can’t do with full overnight service or why it has to continue to deny passengers service even as we know that the risk of surface-based COVID transmission are exceedingly rare. These are questions I’ve asked for months with no real answer. I’ve maintained that the MTA could continue to clear train surfaces as passengers use the system, a charge the MTA has made no real attempt to refute lately. They say it’s easier to clean without riders in the way but have never explained why it’s impossible to disinfect trains while maintaining scant overnight headways. (The ever-helpful mayor appeared on NY1’s Inside City Hall on Monday night and “demanded” the MTA keep up the sanitation theater. The agency had no plans to stop.)

The snap decision comes amidst a flurry of moves regarding the overnight shutdown. On Friday, homeless advocates filed suit, alleging that the MTA did not follow state evidentiary requirements in barring passengers from trains overnight. A few days earlier, following a hearing in which senior MTA officials admitted the overnight shutdowns were costing the MTA money, leading state legislatures had penned a letter urging the governor to restore service. But those weren’t the only recent driving factors.

Many transit observers feel the move is, in part, a response to a heightened attention to increasing subway crime rates and a partial response to a stabbing spree on the A train on Friday that left two passengers dead and two more wounded. Both the perpetrator and his victims were homeless New Yorkers in need of housing and mental health treatment, and the driving impetus for the overnight shutdown was to remove homeless New Yorkers from the trains during the depths of the first wave of the pandemic. As MTA officials have stressed in recent days, the MTA is not equipped to serve as a social services agency. Transit watchers I spoke with believe the added service is an attempt to get more people into the system as more people and more eyeballs generally leads to less crime. It’s a safety in numbers argument that bears watching.

This saga has been an ugly one in the recent annals of NYC transit history. The MTA and New York State are using numbers from April, when ridership was at its lowest ebb barely a quarter of what it is today, to justify denying overnight service to tens of thousands of essential workers, and while restoring service from 4-5 a.m. will provide subway access for over half of overnight riders, the two-hour shutdown seems pointless at this stage. The city and state must address the crises of homelessness and access to mental health care currently affecting those in dire need of assistance, and transit service and rider safety shouldn’t suffer because of the failure to respond to these crises in good or bad times.

It’s a good outcome for New Yorkers and one that brings us closer to the day 24-hour service is restored. But it’s been a bad process from start to finish, based on a lack of transparency regarding the true motives and a reliance on a science that has shifted its understanding of reducing COVID-19 transmission risks. The subways should be cleaned. The subways should not be a rolling shelter of last resort. But closing down service to essential workers to avoid solving these complicated problem never should have been a solution in the first place.

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michael ring February 16, 2021 - 4:45 am

like “sanitation theater”

Eugene February 16, 2021 - 7:11 am

You gotta get the headcases off the trains. The system is circling the rim of the toilet now, and it’ll plop right in, California style, unless you get the headcases off the trains.

Curious February 16, 2021 - 8:09 am

To me and many others, this is just common sense. But you can read the comments on the previous post here if you want to get an eye opening look at how delusional some people are about this situation. People like Doctor Memory and Jeremiah literally couldn’t understand how having homeless people as a constant presence in the trains could make others feel unsafe. They treated it like a complete unproven hypothetical.

Doctor Memory February 16, 2021 - 10:02 am

No, what I do not believe (and which I said repeatedly, apparently to a brick wall) is that if some people could feel unsafe (not my hypothetical — your own words!) that the only possible solution to that problem is to prevent all passengers from using the subway overnight.

And lo and behold, the most headline-grabbing recent incidents of actual violence in the subway recently occurred during daylight hours when the subway was open: should we therefore have closed it down entirely? No kidding, dangerously mentally ill people should be if at all possible kept off the subway but that’s a very different problem than just keeping everyone off of it indefinitely.

“We must do something, this is something, so we must do this!” is the most depressing and damaging syllogism possible during a crisis.

Guest February 21, 2021 - 1:09 pm

I stopped taking the subway largely due to the homeless in like May. I just couldn’t take it. Too many aggressive and unsanitary situations.

Curious February 16, 2021 - 8:04 am

It seems everyone I talk to agrees with the statement “the MTA should not be responsible for providing people with housing”. The problem is that it can be interpreted in one of two ways. For those more left-leaning: “the MTA shouldn’t be making any decisions about housing, so they should end the shutdown and ignore the homeless on the trains until some other agency implements a solution”. For those more right-leaning: “the MTA shouldn’t be providing housing at all, so we need to remove all the homeless people who are using the trains in that manner”. This latter thinking is what led to the shutdowns.

Skeptic February 16, 2021 - 8:11 am

Hey Ben, you may want to consider writing a piece over the recent study on the frightening air quality on the subways. We need to demand change about this.


Benjamin Kabak February 16, 2021 - 9:24 am

Working on it. The study itself is highly technical, and I’d like to probe the authors a bit. It has some alarming results but doesn’t quite track how riders interact with the system. Different story for anyone working down there though.

Larry Penne February 16, 2021 - 8:38 am

Everyoneknew for decades that the subway, bus, commuter rail and ferries are a Petri dish for catching a cold, the flu or other communicable diseases. The rise of a growing homeless population, who ride our subways and live at stations have made matters worse. They clearly have little ability to maintain personal hygiene. MTA Chairman Pat Foye’s having transit workers deep clean the entire system using an “enhanced daily cleaning procedure,” or scrub strategy, should have been the norm for years. Between homeless on board and pre-COVID-19 rush hour standing room only crowds, they need to be thoroughly cleaned on a 24 hour basis. The odds increase for spreading a communicable disease when you are trapped pre-COVID-19 on a crowded bus or subway for long periods of time. Pre-COVID-19, millions of New Yorkers rode the subway, bus or commuter rail. The best time to clean buses and subway cars is off peak or overnight when a majority of the fleet is not in transit service.

It should never have taken the potential spread of the corona virus for the MTA to properly clean equipment and stations. Safety and security of the riding public should always be the number one priority.

NYC has always been a 24/7 town. As more people are vaccinated, the next step is to resume round the clock service in coming months hopefully by June.

(Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).

VLM February 16, 2021 - 9:25 am

There’s a whole lot of [citation needed] applicable to Larry’s latest ramblings.

terry February 16, 2021 - 5:49 pm


William February 16, 2021 - 10:24 am

Restoring two hours of overnight subway service is a brilliant way to distract everyone from nursing home COVID deaths. I did not think that Cuomo and Melissa DeRosa were that smart.

Gene February 18, 2021 - 4:49 pm

He’s going to include reopening the subways as part of his Emmy acceptance speech

OLDER AND WISER March 2, 2021 - 1:27 pm

Didn’t the nursing home miscalculation happen at a time when NY was the sudden global epicenter, and no leader on the planet had yet figured an effective way to cope with the exploding pandemic?

Also, who benefits most from the current frenzy to cancel Cuomo? Could it be that Kamala Harris would prefer to avoid a repeat of her 2020 primary performance in 2024? Cuomo’s rising national popularity last year seemed until recently to have made him the most likely 2024 primary challenger.

Methinks the woke folks at the center of gravity of the VP’s political party would stop at nothing to ensure that their favorite diversity diva gets to spend 11 of the next 12 years in the oval office.

And you don’t need to bother to cancel me. At my age, mother nature is doing a successful job of that already.

Al D February 19, 2021 - 10:05 am

While the trains are definitely cleaner, one is left to wonder, with trains running anyway, how this closure was nothing more than top down direction gone bad.

Nathanael February 28, 2021 - 11:25 pm

MTA continues its attempts to evade its ADA legal requirements, remaining the worst agency in the country for disabled people:


Nathanael March 1, 2021 - 3:58 am Reply
Nathanael March 1, 2021 - 3:58 am

Sorry, that’s the state class action suit!

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