As New York City approaches a phased reopening, there is one major component to life here that needs to be addressed: our mass transit system. The city's underground arteries, as well as city buses, are integral to keeping New York moving. Unless we are all mandated to stay in certain districts until there's a vaccine, we're going to see ridership tick back up soon. But will that also lead to spike in COVID-19 cases? The MTA currently has not yet released their full plan to reopen the subways to all and keep riders safe, and when asked about it at Thursday's briefing, Mayor Bill de Blasio didn't have a plan, either.

He estimated that between 200,000 to 400,000 New Yorkers could return to work sometime in the next two weeks, but when asked how they'd commute, de Blasio simply acknowledged that some may be "uncomfortable" with the idea of stepping on to a subway car, adding, "For the next few months, people are going to make their own choices. Some are going to come on mass transit and some are not." In other words, in the absence of better, clearer information from our elected officials, New Yorkers are going to have to wing it.

To help us all make informed decisions, we asked several health experts about mass transit, and how safe it will be to return to during and after the pandemic.

A woman wearing a mask exiting the subway

This will only work if everyone wears a mask. (Photo from March 2020)

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This will only work if everyone wears a mask. (Photo from March 2020)
Tod Seelie / Gothamist

How much can face coverings, masks, and social distancing work to prevent transmission on mass transit?

Dr. Scott Weisenberg, an Infectious Disease specialist at NYU Langone, told Gothamist it's all about modifying risk at this stage. "If you're in an indoor location, like a subway, that's higher risk than an outdoor location. And if you're on a subway that's going from the Bronx to Brooklyn, and you're going to be on that for an hour, that's a higher risk than, say, if I'm going two stops."

Wearing masks will be of extreme importance, he stressed: "The people around you wearing a mask is what reduces your risk on a subway. So if you have a bunch of people who are not wearing masks and they're within close contact with you, within six feet, and you're around them for prolonged period of time, not just 30 seconds, that's putting you at risk. Even if you're wearing a mask, those other people are putting you at risk. So the way that everybody reduces the risk is that everybody wears a mask at all times when they're around other people."

Epidemiologist Stephen Morse at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health echoed the importance of masks and hand hygiene. "Based on the evidence we have, we think that most of the transmission is from inhaling droplets. These are the larger particles expelled when someone sneezes, coughs, speaks, sings, or whatever," he said.  "There is also some transmission by other mechanisms, but ultimately the virus gets in through the face: nose, mouth, and probably eyes. Face coverings capture droplets from an infected person; social distancing similarly is intended to prevent people from being in the path of errant droplets. Hand washing is simply to prevent you from touching your face with fingers that may have picked up virus along the way, perhaps by touching a surface that had virus on it."

Have we seen promising data from other mass transit systems?

Early studies show that the above measures do help, Morse says — "There may be some collateral benefits of these precautions. Preliminary data from Japan, and several other places, suggest that flu cases dropped markedly and the flu season ended when these measures were put into place for the coronavirus. That wouldn’t be surprising. Most of these are the same precautions we have always recommended for flu prevention while we’re waiting for the vaccine (and good after getting the vaccine as well), with the addition of the face coverings/masks, and a greater emphasis on social distancing."  

MTA Installs Plexiglass and Vinyl Barriers to Protect Employees and Riders During COVID-19 Pandemic

MTA Installs Plexiglass and Vinyl Barriers to Protect Employees and Riders During COVID-19 Pandemic

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MTA Installs Plexiglass and Vinyl Barriers to Protect Employees and Riders During COVID-19 Pandemic
MTA

Are there any other guidelines or measures that could make our mass transit safer?

Weisenberg told us: "I think the most important thing would be for the MTA to continue to enforce their mask and social distancing regulations. I take the bus to work and I think 90 percent of people have a mask on. There's still people who don't always keep a mask on all the time, but people seem to be following social distancing. So I think enforcing the mask wearing, so people in close prolonged contacts on public transportation is important."

In March, the MTA began a subway and bus cleaning process that New York had not seen before. Weisenberg says this kind of cleaning could also help — "I think that the efforts to make sure that the subways are clean, [with] regular cleaning, are also important." But either way, straphangers need to wash their hands after a ride: "If you're touching a surface, even if that risk is maybe not as high as someone coughing on you, you can get infected by touching something and then touching your face and then that getting into your mouth. And that's how the infection spreads. So washing our hands regularly including after public transportation is probably also good advice."

Morse noted that some changes have already been made. "Some workers had no choice and have had to use mass transit all along (these include the service and maintenance people we’ve come to recognize as 'essential'). Subways and buses do pose some special problems, especially for social distancing, although some of the needed alterations have already been made. For example, after the tragic death of a bus driver from COVID-19, we see that city buses now block off the first several rows of seats behind the driver, for social distancing, and passengers use the rear door (or doors, in the case of the longer articulated buses) for both entry and exit."

MTA transit workers clean a subway station in Brooklyn as well as a subway car.

Transit workers cleaning on March 3, 2020

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Transit workers cleaning on March 3, 2020
Gretchen Robinette / Gothamist

Will riding the subway or a city bus be safe again? 

"Yes, or anyway, as safe as before the pandemic started," Morse told us. "The question is when."

A few months? A year? What kind of timeline are we looking at?

"I think we’re all waiting for a good vaccine, or several, hopefully in the next year," Morse said. "Until then, for most of us, I suspect that returning to mass transit, and the other everyday activities we’ve taken for granted, will happen gradually, and cautiously at first as we learn to navigate this unfamiliar environment."

Subway conductor wears a plastic shield over his face

Subway conductor wears a plastic shield over his face

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Subway conductor wears a plastic shield over his face
Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock

What about the ventilation system?

Ventilation has come up in a number of studies around COVID-19. Dr. Weisenberg noted that, "There's always going to be an exception where the virus is behaving and transmitting a little bit easier because of an air current or threatened situation."

Ruth Collins, an Associate Professor of Molecular Medicine at Cornell, explains that when we're in these confined spaces and we simply do not know who is actively shedding virus, ventilation quality may be something to look at.

"I do not know if it is possible to improve the ventilation quality of public spaces, planes may be a good example, clearly some models of planes have excellent ventilation systems, for example there was a UK man identified early on in the pandemic as a 'super spreader' who traveled between several countries and infected multiple individuals at the locations where he stayed and socialized. He also took a short flight within Europe yet not a single other person identified on this flight became infected which suggests that the ventilation system on this particular aircraft was extremely effective."

However, it's unclear if the ventilation system in our decades-old subway cars would be effective. So again, it falls to the public to wear masks.

"In terms of wearing masks, it has been demonstrated that even the simplest types of masks consisting of two layers of woven cotton fabric, confer 30-60 percent protection from airborne particles," Collins said. "On a population level, widespread adoption of this practice will reduce the transmission rate. Another way to think about this is like having a lot of extra filters. If everybody on public transportation is wearing a mask correctly, the quality of ventilation is cumulatively improved."

A woman on the subway entrance stairs wearing a mask

A woman exits the subway wearing a mask, March 2020.

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A woman exits the subway wearing a mask, March 2020.
Tod Seelie / Gothamist

What can straphangers do to further protect themselves?

"There’s increasing interest in the plastic face shields, now that they’re more available," Morse said. "Face shields are used by healthcare workers who are in contact with COVID-19 patients, but haven’t been used much by the rest of us. Maybe we think they make us look too geeky. But they do provide additional protection, and are fairly comfortable to wear and easy to clean. We don’t have enough data yet to know whether they can be worn in place of the usual face coverings or masks, so don’t stop the regular face coverings or masks yet, but they do give added protection. As the weather gets warmer, it will also be harder to sustain mask wearing."

Some parting advice from Morse: "Whatever we do (at very least until the vaccine arrives) it’s really important not to get complacent about these precautions. It’s one way we can show that indeed we are all in this together, and depend on each other."


For more, here is Dr. Scott Weisenberg speaking on WNYC's Morning Edition:

Update, 5 p.m.: A rep for the MTA, Shams Tarek, told Gothamist, "We have been formulating a plan for weeks, and will be releasing more detail soon."

MTA chairman Patrick Foye also released a statement, which read, in part: "The CDC’s latest guidance marks yet another confounding recommendation from the nation’s top public health authority. Encouraging people, especially those without cars and in congested areas like New York, not to take public transit is misguided. Transit is, and has long been, the safest way to move around any city." 

The MTA was unable to provide their full plan to Gothamist, or research backing up the claim that "transit is the safest way to move around the city."