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.