Last Wednesday the MTA announced that it was reducing subway and bus service by around 25 percent to account for catastrophic drops in ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dubbed the "Essential Service Plan," the MTA said that changes to rush hour service wouldn't be noticeable for those New Yorkers who still rely on mass transit to get to their essential jobs. But riders have been reporting being packed into crowded subway cars and buses, creating unsafe environments where social distancing is all but impossible.
"On a normal day it's packed in like Tokyo, but today I was a little afraid because they are almost as full as ever," said Eileen Walsh, a nanny who commutes from the Bronx to Union Square to look after the child of a nurse. "But it makes sense, we are all service workers, we can't stay home," Walsh told Gothamist.
Walsh said her commute begins on the 6 train, with a transfer to the 4/5 at 125th Street, where the trains are usually crowded.
"By the time you're down to Union Square it's somewhat reasonable, but when you're up in those higher places you're packed like sardines," Walsh said. "The poor people are doing all the work."
A report in the Times on Monday showed that while Manhattan, where the median income is around $80,000, saw a 75 percent decrease in subway ridership, the Bronx, which has a median income of $38,000, saw a decrease of around 55 percent,
One rider posted a video of her 5 train commute from the Bronx on Friday. “Last week, the trains were empty. And now, this week, it’s packed," the woman says on the video. "This is a death trap, and we have to go to work."
On Monday morning, a city worker sent Gothamist a photo of her commute on the BX21. "This is unsafe and scary," said the worker, who asked us to remain anonymous because they aren't authorized to speak to the press.
"I took [the bus] all last week and it was empty. I tried to move away and cover up but it’s hard," the worker said, noting that she has to wait an extra 15 minutes because of the reduced service. "While I understand that we are definitely an essential service, it feels like the commissioner and mayor do not care about us."
In an interview with NY1 on Monday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that crowded trains were "not acceptable."
"I understand people are trying to get somewhere, but no one should be getting on a crowded train," de Blasio said. "Spread out throughout the train, wait for the next train."
The mayor said that the NYPD would begin enforcing social distancing throughout the city, including on mass transit, with fines up to $500.
"But the PD is going to go out there, if they see any overcrowding, they are literally split it up, pull people off the train, moving along into different cars, whatever it takes," de Blasio said. "This is literally about protecting people's lives. So, anyone who sees it, call 311. Anyone who sees a train come up and it’s crowded, don't get on it."
Last week, overall subway ridership declined 87 percent, and bus ridership decreased more than 70 percent. Metro-North ridership has dipped 94 percent and LIRR ridership is down more than 71 percent. The MTA is getting almost $4 billion in relief from the federal government from the recent coronavirus stimulus package that President Trump signed last week.
As of Saturday, the MTA said it has at least 156 workers who tested positive for COVID-19, including Chairman and CEO Pat Foye, and over 1,181 workers are in self-quarantine, while others have been calling out sick.
At least four MTA workers have died after contracting the illness, and another MTA worker died last week in an apparent arson on Friday morning.
Asked about the mayor's comments that the police would begin breaking up crowds in the subway system, Walsh, the nanny, mentioned the 500 new police officers the MTA recently hired.
"Where were they today? All those new cops they hired? There wasn't one cop," Walsh said. "They're not getting on the train. Would you? You're not getting on that train unless you're getting fired from your job if you don't. And that's everyone on that train." (According to the MTA, 150 of those hires were made in February, and they are still being trained.)
"The MTA designed its Essential Service Plan to be responsive, and we have been adding trains where possible to help maintain social distance. We are constrained by the number of crews available as our employees take precautions against the spread of COVID-19," said Abbey Collins, an MTA spokesperson. "We are monitoring this in real time, working with the NYPD, and doing everything possible to ensure the health and safety of our customers and employees."
[UPDATE / 2:45 p.m.] The MTA just released this statement from NYCT Interim President Sarah Feinberg and Acting MTA Bus Company President Craig Cipriano noting that five of its workers have died due to complications from COVID-19: Scott Elijah, Caridad Santiago, Ernesto Hernandez, Victor Zapana, and Warren Tucker.
Mr. Elijah was a 15-year track worker with the Combined Action/Emergency Response Unit, based in Long Island City, Queens. Ms. Santiago was a cleaner for 13 years, assigned to the Stations Department in the Bronx. Mr. Hernandez was a bus operator for 15 years, most recently working out of the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot. Mr. Zapana was a supervisor in the Stations Department who worked from various locations throughout the subway system for almost 30 years. Mr. Tucker was a bus mechanic for almost five years at the MTA Bus Company, assigned this year to the Central Maintenance Facility in East New York, Brooklyn.
“We are heartbroken at the passing of five heroic members of the New York City Transit family. Scott, Caridad, Ernesto, Victor and Warren were all inspiring and valued colleagues, well-loved and well-respected by their co-workers. They dedicated their lives to serving the public and keeping New Yorkers moving. This is a tragic loss for the city. Their families and friends are in our prayers during this incredibly difficult and painful time.”