Ridership on Monday was down 87 percent on the subway, 94 percent on the Metro-North commuter railway, 76 percent on the Long Island Rail Road and more than 60 percent on buses from the same day last year, according to Ken Lovett, a senior adviser for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
As of Monday, buses are being boarded from the back — and essentially operated for free — to avoid riders getting too close to the drivers.
The MTA has asked for a $4 billion federal bailout (“That’s with a ‘B,’ ” says MTA communications director Tim Minton) so it can keep running public transit 24 hours a day while taking an enormous financial hit on three sides: loss of fare revenue, loss of dedicated tax revenue, and a steep increase in the cost of spraying the system down with disinfectant, at an estimated cost of $25 million a month, Minton says, so it can be done “at least once, sometimes twice a day.”
Starting Wednesday, the MTA will be reducing service on subways and buses to what is essentially a Saturday schedule, as well as drastically reducing commuter rail service. That means trains will arrive regularly, but there will be longer waits between each train, although there may be increased service during peak hours.
By executive order from Cuomo’s office, subway use is limited to 12 categories of essential workers that include a broad and surprising mix: health-care workers and first responders, naturally, but also farmers-market workers, accountants and more. Many have no other affordable way to get to their jobs, a journey that can cross boroughs and take multiple hours each way.
The 6 p.m. rush hour at Fulton Street Transit Center is usually a mess of commuters running to get to the eight subway lines that converge inside a cathedral-like glass mall that is also at Wall Street’s doorstep in downtown Manhattan. It’s the kind of giddy chaos on which New York City hums. That is, it was. Pre-virus.
But on Monday, evening rush hour in the metropolitan area with the nation’s densest population suddenly seemed like a ghost town. So much so that several regular observers — police officers, a janitor, a mail carrier and a busker — compared it to the deserted zombieland of the subway at 3 a.m. At least half of the few riders were wearing masks and latex gloves.
Discarded gloves are everywhere — on MetroCard vending machines, in stairwells, in random spots on the floor. One woman came upon one and jumped over several escalator steps to avoid it.
“I don’t know, the energy is just negative. It’s sad. It’s so eerie,” said Mia, a physician’s assistant in scrubs and a mask who lives in downtown Manhattan and works at New York Presbyterian Hospital all the way up at 168th Street. She declined to give her last name because she isn’t authorized to speak to the press.
What few faces were still on the trains were overwhelmingly black, brown and Asian. Many were also immigrants. At Union Square station, the infamously crowded L train had only 12 people waiting for it. Normally, riders have to wait multiple trains to find room to squeeze in.
Some spots of normalcy remained. The streaks of mysterious liquids on the floor. The abandoned potato chip bag taking up a seat. The rats.
“They say they’re cleaning the subway, but it looks the same to me,” said Josh Lopez, 23, a cashier for a Penn Station bakery who commutes from the Bronx. “Definitely smells the same.”
Many of the health-care workers were the ones not wearing masks. Elliot Newman, chief of surgical oncology at Northwell Hospital, was riding the subway for a single stop because it was raining, and it’s the easiest way for him to get home. “Honestly, I think it’s okay as long as you can be smart about it,” he said. “Wash your hands when you get off. Don’t touch your face when you touch a pole. Don’t be near anyone who’s sick.”
The city’s 12 kinds of essential workers must also grapple with the unofficial 13th category of subway rider: the city’s teeming homeless population, estimated at 80,000. The MTA formed a task force last year to combat the subway’s homelessness crisis, in conjunction with other agencies. Nearly 2,200 people use the subway as “a de facto shelter,” according to the task force report, but goals like mental-health outreach and increased policing seem hard to maintain under these circumstances.
Those who have been riding the subway say the increase in homeless riders, at all times of the day, often sleeping on the seats or in the stations, is palpable. “Where normally I’d see five or six, now maybe it’s 20,” said Lopez, the Penn Station cashier.
“Something has to be done soon,” said a busking saxophonist in Penn Station who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of privacy concerns. “People are not settled. They’re not in their right minds.” The homeless people he was seeing, he said, looked weak, like they weren’t eating. He saw one man scream at a trash can with nothing inside. “And who’s gonna give money?”
Donnette Oshunbayo, 40, a nursing home assistant who takes one bus and three trains on her two-hour commute from New Jersey to Brooklyn, said she’s noticed more aggression from the homeless. “They come close. They ask for money or for food,” she said. “But where have they been? What have they been touching? You want to help, but it’s scary.”
Not that she gives in to the fear, she clarified: “I pray before I leave the house and I pray when I get back, and in between I listen to gospel.”
Kyle Perez, 37, a security guard at a McDonald’s in the Bronx who faces a three-hour round-trip commute from his home in Queens, said he had to break up a fight on Sunday between two homeless men who walked through the drive-through. “People’s tempers are higher,” he said. “Their nerves are bad.” He’s so exhausted from it all that he fell asleep on the train and missed his stop that morning.
Yet hope of a kind remains. One young commuter had enough of it to ask a police officer at Fulton Center if the public bathrooms were still open. They were not.