I first “met” Dr. Ilon Rincon Portas last month while reporting on a COVID-19 testing site run by a healthcare network that serves many immigrant New Yorkers. I say “met” because, given the need for social distancing, I never saw this doctor in person. To report the story, I relied on Rincon Portas to send me photographs of the place and to record their experiences using a cell phone.

Rincon Portas, 41, uses the pronouns they and them. They came from Venezuela and received asylum almost a decade ago for, in their own words, being queer. 

Rincon Portas practiced emergency medicine in Venezuela. But without a U.S. medical license, they are only allowed to volunteer during the pandemic. They commute from Harlem to the Somos testing site at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens several days a week by taking the A train, a journey that begins just after 5 a.m. and takes almost two hours.

Ilon Rincon Portas on the train

Knowing this, I figured Rincon Portas would have a lot to say about the historic shutdown of the city’s subway system from 1-5 a.m., which started Wednesday morning. The doctor agreed to record the commute on the day before the shutdown and again on Wednesday morning, immediately after service resumed.

Hear Ilon Rincon Portas describing what it was like commuting on the A-Train this week:

A few takeaways:

Despite working at a “hot zone” (the testing site), Rincon Portas was rattled by riding the trains during the pandemic. “I feel much more nervous and unsafe on the subway than I do in the hot zone,” they told me on Tuesday, describing trains with so much garbage that “you walk on the train and your shoes stick to the floor, it’s so dirty.” One day, Rincon Portas said they stepped into a car where a passenger had diarrhea.

Prior to Wednesday, Rincon Portas routinely saw at least a couple of homeless people on the train car before the shutdown started. Rincon Portas deliberately rode the last car of the A train because it was less crowded, with about 15 passengers on average. They said they saw many of the same people each morning, men who appeared to be working in construction and maintenance, because of their steel-toed shoes, plus a couple of nurses. People tried to stay far apart from each other. But being in a closed space with so much filth still made the ride feel very dangerous. Rincon Portas always wears a N95 mask, gloves and scrubs on the train.

Photograph taken in April 2020

After the first nightly shutdown, when the trains resumed running after 5 a.m. on Wednesday, Rincon Portas encountered more passengers than usual at the A train platform at West 145th Street. They did not see any homeless people and said the platform looked like it had been scrubbed “but not too thoroughly.” When the train arrived, Rincon Portas didn’t notice that much of a difference. They said the seats looked cleaner but the floors were still sticky and dirty.

Underneath subway seat on May 6, 2020

The train was also more crowded. “There were at least three times as many people for my commute,” they said. “This means many more people and not being able to maintain social distance in an adequate way.”

A relatively crowded subway car on May 6th

While riding the train, Rincon Portas noticed that the West 42nd, 34th and 14th street stations all looked very shiny on Wednesday morning. They did not see any homeless people and wondered if the city really did make good on its plans to find them safe shelter

Rincon Portas empathized with those who had gone underground for safety, but also knew they could pose a danger to others if they had a psychotic break or were carrying the virus and didn’t have protective gear. “On a personal level, I flee my country because of violence and not feeling safe and so I would like to feel safe again in the subway,” they said. However, “not at the expense of somebody else.”

The 42nd Street A/C/E/ platform on May 6th, after the subway trains and stations were shut down for cleaning.

Rincon Portas does not normally take the subway back to Harlem after their shift at the Aqueduct ends at 1 p.m. The trains are much more crowded then, and after leaving a hot zone Rincon described feeling “radioactive” and not wanting to stand or sit too close to anyone. A friend who already had the coronavirus picks them up in a car and takes them home, where Rincon Portas is able to continue working as a medical educator for Kaplan.

But now that the morning trains are more crowded, Rincon Portas is thinking of taking extra precautions. “I want to see how the rest of the week is going, but I might either have to incorporate more safety precautions like maybe wearing a face shield or goggles, or I may have to look to alternatives to how to get to work.”

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering immigration, courts, and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.