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New York public transit disrupted by virus

By ANDREW COHEN in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-04-13 11:20

The Oculus transportation hub and mall stands nearly deserted in lower Manhattan on March 29, 2020 in New York City. [Photo/Agencies]

Public transportation in and around New York City has been hit hard by the novel coronavirus.

As of Friday, at least 1,900 transit workers with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) have tested positive for the virus, and at least 50 have died of COVID-19, according to local TV station WABC. 

The MTA, which employs some 72,000 people, operates the city buses and subways in New York as well as commuter trains and infrastructure that serve the greater New York area.  

"Subway ridership is down about 93 percent — this is data as of yesterday," MTA Chairman Patrick Foye said in a radio interview Friday with WCBS, adding that he sees "Long Island Rail Road down 97 percent. Metro-North (serving northern suburbs) down 95 (percent) and bridge and tunnel traffic down two-thirds."

Foye, who himself tested positive for coronavirus, said that 5,200 MTA workers are currently under quarantine, down from a high of 6,000, and that about 1,800 who were quarantined have returned to work. Officials have reported that absenteeism is up fourfold since the start of the pandemic.

Some employees said the MTA was slow in responding to the public health crisis, causing many to take matters into their own hands by bringing in homemade masks and disinfectants and roping off bus seats to maintain physical distancing. 

Foye defended the MTA, telling WCBS that "since March 1st (we've distributed) well over 2.5 million pairs of gloves, 500,000 masks … and 160,000 or 170,000 surgical masks, and began disinfecting" rolling stock and stations as well as putting in "rear door boarding to eliminate contact between drivers and passengers (and ending) cash transactions".

The MTA has instituted an in-house "Temperature Brigade" to check for fever in up to 2,000 employees a day at 22 work sites. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher is sent home and told to call a medical professional.

"One of the best ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to ensure that people who are sick are staying home, out of the transit system and away from work," MTA Chief Safety Officer Patrick Warren told WABC.

Two weeks ago, the MTA said it was cutting service by at least 25 percent, citing both absenteeism and a drop in ridership. But in a region where many essential workers don't have private cars, the MTA system, the largest in North America, remains a vital resource for the New York area.

In mid-March, the transit authority sent a letter to New York's congressional delegation requesting a $4 billion federal bailout. 

At the time, the MTA projected revenue losses of around $3.7 billion if trends continued for the next several months, also adding $300 million in outbreak-related expenses like disinfecting.

"The MTA has already committed to finding $2.8 billion in savings over the next several years," said Foye, quoted in The New York Times. "No agency of our size can find additional billions in savings equivalent to the damages we have and will sustain as a result of this pandemic."

"New York's subways, trains, and buses are our very lifeblood," Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and the Senate minority leader, said in a statement. "Senate Democrats are leading the charge to include substantial support for the whole system in any package Congress will next consider to keep our vital public institutions stable and operating."

In neighboring New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy announced Saturday that he was cutting by 50 percent statewide transit capacity, which includes both state-run NJ Transit and private carriers. He also mandated face coverings for all passengers as well as requiring masks and gloves for all transit workers. The executive order goes into effect Monday night.

More than 100 NJ Transit employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 783 are quarantined, according to figures provided by the agency Friday. NJ Transit employs nearly 12,000.

"Right now for many of our essential workers, public transit is how they get to work, and we need to protect them during that trip," Murphy said at a news conference Saturday.

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