De Blasio Seeks 24/7 Vaccinations, But Not a 24/7 Subway

Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit
Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

Don’t take the A train, if you’re looking to get an early morning vaccine.

Mayor de Blasio said that his administration can fulfill its 24/7 vaccination mission without a subway that also runs 24/7.

Asked whether he or his MTA Board appointees would start to push for a return to overnight subway service — which ended in May — in order to make it easier for healthcare workers and vaccination receivers to get to 24-hour vaccination sites, de Blasio said that the agency’s overnight cleaning regimen was too important to give up right now.

“The effort to make it possible for people to return to the subways because they believe in the cleanliness and the healthiness of the subways, that late night cleaning, has been a real success,” the mayor told reporters on Friday. “This is something where the state and city were on the same page. We’re still in the thick of the COVID crisis; I would not end that policy now. There’s a day in the future where we need to go back to 24-hour service, but not now. We need that cleaning regimen in place. I would stick with the current plan.”

MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek agreed that the city and state were seeing eye-to-eye.

“The pandemic is far from over, and with a significantly more contagious strain in the state already, we’re continuing an all-of-the-above approach, attacking both surface and aerosol transmission, and it is not the time to make compromises or take risks on health and safety,” said Tarek. “We have an increased overnight bus service accommodating customers between 1 and 5 a.m. and as always we’ll monitor ridership and make any necessary adjustments that we can.”

Transportation advocates have spent months pointing to the experience in other countries, where public transportation was not found as a vector for spreading coronavirus, and to statements from scientists that shutting down service to spend money on surface cleaning does not make sense as a way to stop COVID from spreading since person-to-person spread is the much likelier way that the virus is transmitted.

In addition, the trains themselves are still running overnight, just with no passengers.

Overnight subway service was ended early in the pandemic, after the mayor suggested closing terminal stations in order to clean trains, the first time in the system’s 107-year history it did not run all day and night. The given reason for the shutdown was to allow the MTA to deep clean trains at a time when it was believed that surface spread of coronavirus was one of the primary ways that the virus was transmitted. But the shutdown also allowed the MTA to remove homeless New Yorkers from the system, who were more visible than ever as ridership plummeted during the pandemic.

Although the subway usually carried about 150,000 riders between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m., the number of overnight riders dropped to a low of about 10,000 during the early days of the pandemic and have since rebounded to about 20,000 riders, most of whom are essential workers who still need to get around. The MTA has replaced the subway service with expanded bus options, though not every commuter has found it to be an exact substitution.

Indeed, NY1 spent a morning with a hospital worker whose early morning commute from the Bronx to the Upper East Side doubled from a half hour to an hour because she could only use the bus instead of the subway. That hospital employee said the new commute was responsible for her working on getting her driver’s license and a car. (Car registrations were up 37 percent this fall, the New York Times reported this week.)

One of the city’s first 24-hour sites, Bathagate Industrial Park in the Bronx, isn’t near a subway station, but the other site, in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, is just two avenues west of the 59th Street N/R stop.

City leaders and transit advocates took the mayor to task for sticking with the subway shutdown, calling it an idea that works fine for the mayor’s hometown of ::shudder:: Boston.

“Statements like [today’s] out of City Hall should comfort everyone who prefers the governor keep control over the subway,” said Riders Alliance Communications Director Danny Pearlstein. “Overnight closures originated with this mayor and were unfortunately adopted by the governor and MTA. They may work up in Beantown but this is the City that Never Sleeps. New Yorkers need a subway that stays awake to beat COVID by vaccination and by getting tens of thousands of essential workers to their jobs as painlessly as possible.”

Contrary to Pearlstein’s assertion, an MTA official said that the overnight shutdown idea originated with Gov. Cuomo.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson tweeted that restoring 24/7 service was “the right thing to do” and Comptroller/mayoral candidate Scott Stringer tweeted that overnight service has “only grown in importance” in light of the 24/7 vaccination effort, both seemingly tweeted as a rebuke to the mayor’s comments.

New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg told transit employees that overnight service wouldn’t return until at least this summer. But advocates also pointed out that the overnight shutdown has not been examined as a matter of policy, and still only scheduled to end on the governor’s (or maybe it’s the state Health Commissioner’s) determination that we’ve reached “the end of the pandemic.”

“We continue to ask for the science-based metrics and milestones being used to determine whether — and how — the same levels of cleanliness can be attained and either compress hours of closure or reopen the system,” said Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA Executive Director Lisa Daglian. “While buses remain an option for people who need to travel overnight — including essential workers — they cannot replace subways, especially for those who need to travel long distances. The city that never sleeps shouldn’t nap!”

That’s especially true when the city is trying to create a round-the-clock vaccination schedule when its own subway takes a four-hour siesta.

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