MTA determined any NYC subway shutdown during coronavirus pandemic would cause more deaths

A rider waits for a subway at the platform at Times Square on March 13.
A rider waits for a subway at the platform at Times Square on March 13.(JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

MTA officials considered shutting down New York’s subway system over the last month to contain the spread of coronavirus, but determined it would lead to an even greater loss of life in the virus-ravaged city, according to sources with knowledge of the decision.
Transit honchos began gaming out what a pandemic-driven subway shutdown would look like as early as March 9, and mapped out numerous service changes before eventually landing on an “Essential Service Plan” March 24. The plan reduced the number of daily scheduled train and bus trips by roughly 25%.
Heads at NYC Transit went so far as to contact private bus companies to talk about providing trips to work for front-line professionals like hospital staff and grocery store employees, according to a source.
But even with the private bus carriers, a subway shutdown would prevent hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers from completing essential errands like food and pharmacy runs or doctor visits.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority bigs believe preventing those trips would have led to even more than the 7,349 New York City COVID-19 deaths the state reported as of Monday morning, sources said.
Plummeting ridership spurred by Gov. Cuomo’s March 20 “New York PAUSE” order also reinforced the decision to keep the subway running, sources said. Subway ridership on Friday hovered below 400,000, a 93% drop from a comparable date in 2019.
Many within the MTA’s own workforce, which has lost at least 59 people to COVID-19, called for a full subway shutdown to protect front-line transit workers. Transit officials said Monday 2,269 of the agency’s 71,000 employees tested positive for the disease, with thousands more having been quarantined or called out sick.

The workforce shortage has limited the MTA’s ability to run subway service. At some points in the past three weeks, officials did not have enough crews to run even 60% of the already reduced service plan.

Still, officials at Transport Workers Union, which represents roughly 40,000 New York City transit workers, have since the start of the pandemic opposed a subway shutdown — so long as employees are given proper protective equipment.

John Samuelsen, the union’s international president, has instead focused on ensuring line-of-duty death benefits for transit workers who die from coronavirus, and lobbied for the federal government to provide hazard pay so workers can be compensated for exposing themselves to the disease.

Even with all the war-gaming, MTA chairman Pat Foye pinned any decision to close the subway on Gov. Cuomo.

“At the end of the day it [a subway shutdown] is a decision that would be made by Governor Cuomo,” Foye said on March 13. “But right now... we’ve got at the MTA, contingency plans on top of contingency plans.”

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