They let trains that look too crowded pass by. If they decide to board, they search for emptier cars to ride in. Then they size up fellow passengers before picking the safest spot they can find to sit or stand for commutes sometimes lasting an hour or more.
This quiet calculus is being performed daily by people who must keep working during the coronavirus pandemic and say the social distancing required is nearly impossible to practice in the enclosed spaces of New York City’s public transit system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people should stay six feet (two metres) apart. But even though ridership has plummeted in the city, making jam-packed trains and buses the exception rather than the rule, passengers aren’t always guaranteed even six inches (15 centimetres).
“Everybody is very scared,” Shaderra Armstead, a health care clinic receptionist who rides the subway to work, said this week. ”They’re trying to keep their distance from each other, but it’s impossible.”
“It makes me not want to go on the train at all,” she said. “I’m nervous every day, but I still have to go.”
Riders on some trains in Brooklyn and Queens this week sat or stood in some cars within a few feet of one another, some with their faces uncovered, while keeping their distance from homeless people camped out. At the same time, there are images showing subway platforms mostly empty at times they’d typically be crowded.
Transit officials say they’re working harder than ever to protect passengers and their own workers amid a pandemic that has killed more than 7,000 New Yorkers in just a few weeks, mostly in the city and its suburbs. Several suburban counties in New Jersey and Connecticut have also registered significant numbers of deaths.
The virus has also taken the lives of 41 employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city’s buses and subway as well as many commuter trains. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, but, for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and lead to death.
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“We want as little social density and as much social distance as we can get,” MTA Chairman Patrick Foye said in a radio interview Tuesday.
Foye, who also got the virus but is doing fine, called scenes of crowding on trains “episodic” and said safety measures are working well enough that complaints by riders about overcrowding have dried up in recent days.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday on WNYC radio that he doesn’t think the issue has been resolved.