As the coronavirus pandemic has all but shut down New York City, its subway — an emblem of urban overcrowding — has become almost unrecognizable, with overall ridership down 87%.
But even as officials crack down on gatherings in New York, removing hoops from basketball courts and sending police to break up parties, subway stations in poorer neighborhoods are still bustling, as if almost nothing has changed.
It is a striking turnabout for a system that has long been the great equalizer, a space where hourly workers jostled alongside financial executives. Now the subway has become more of a symbol of the city’s inequality, amplifying the divide between those with the means to safely shelter at home and those who must continue braving public transit to preserve meager livelihoods.
“This virus is very dangerous. I don’t want to get sick, I don’t want my family to get sick, but I still need to get to my job,” said Yolanda Encanción, a home health aide, as she waited for her train in the Bronx.
The station she uses is one of two in the Bronx that have largely retained their ridership and serve neighborhoods with some of the highest poverty rates in the city, a New York Times analysis found.
The 170th Street station in the University Heights neighborhood and the Burnside station in the Mount Eden area are surrounded by large Latin American and African immigrant communities where the median household income is about $22,000 — one-third the median household income in the state, according to census data.
Many residents say they have no choice but to pile onto trains with strangers, potentially exposing themselves to the virus. Even worse, a reduction in service in response to plunging ridership has led, at times, to crowded conditions, making it impossible to maintain the social distancing that public health experts recommend.
Across New York, nearly 66,500 people have tested positive for the coronavirus and 1,218 people have died, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday. Most cases are concentrated in New York City, where over 36,000 people have tested positive.
Sitting on a bench at the 170th Street station, Encanción stretched a medical mask across her face and slipped her hands into latex gloves. The risk of exposure to the coronavirus on the subway is just part of the simmering anxiety that hangs like a backdrop to her everyday life.
Her two teenage children are desperate to see their friends, but she only allows them to leave the family’s two-bedroom apartment for a walk with their aunt once a day.
Encanción’s husband was a janitor at a private school until he was laid off after the school shut down, slashing her family’s income in half. They have enough savings to cover this month’s rent, but nothing more. “Next month how will we pay? I can’t even think about it,” she said.
Encanción was one of the few passengers on her line on a recent weekday after ridership across the subway plunged nearly 90% compared with the same day last year, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway and buses.
Put differently, before the crisis erupted more than 5 million people squeezed onto the system every day — today, it carries fewer than 1 million. But a Times analysis of MTA data shows that ridership declines in each of the four boroughs served by the subway vary significantly and largely along socioeconomic lines.
Over the past two weeks, the steepest ridership declines have occurred in Manhattan, where the median household income is $80,000 — the highest of any of the city’s five boroughs.
Subway ridership in Manhattan fell around 75%, while ridership in the Bronx, which has the highest poverty rate of any of the boroughs and the lowest median income at $38,000, dropped by around 55%, according to an analysis of data of Friday morning commutes through March 20.
The Burnside Avenue and 170th Street stations serve some of the people most vulnerable to the economic and public health threats sweeping New York. In areas bordering the stations, roughly half the children live in poverty, 40% of the population was born outside the United States, and 1 in 4 people does not have a high school diploma.
At the 170th Street station, riders still come in waves every morning: Men tend to arrive first, swiping into the station before dawn. Wearing paint-splattered jeans and carrying battered hard hats, they board trains to construction sites.
Later, many women trickle onto the platform, mostly nurses and home health aides who have been deemed essential workers. Others are home cooks and nannies for the well-to-do, hoping to keep their jobs as long as possible in an unraveling economy.
Sulay Liriano, 40, was at the 170th Street station, starting her commute to Queens. A personal care aide, she had received an email from her employer the day before instructing her and her colleagues in bold, red letters that they were considered “ESSENTIAL” and must show up for work.
On the one hand, Liriano is grateful to still have an income: Her husband, who had worked at a restaurant helping with deliveries and odd jobs in the kitchen, had been let go. But Liriano is anxious about the 2 1/2 hours she spends every day huddling with strangers in an enclosed subway car. For years, she made her work commute without giving it much thought.
Now she scans every pole, every seat, every person, as if looking for signs of an invisible enemy. She is hyper-aware of where she keeps her hands, resisting the urge to fix a fallen strand of hair or wipe a stray lash from her eyelids.
“I am worried, really,” said Liriano, who has not been able to find a face mask since panicked shoppers emptied neighborhood store shelves. “There are still many people here, people I don’t know, I don’t know what precautions they are taking, if they are sick. “It’s the riskiest part of my day, taking the train,” she added.
The MTA has tried to protect its diminished ridership: It has deployed cleaners to disinfect train cars and buses every three days with the same disinfectants used in hospitals and nursing homes. But hobbled by a growing number of workers falling sick and the free fall in ridership, the agency has cut subway service by 25%.
“Service is constrained by the number of crews we have available during this crisis — not surprisingly, absences are in the thousands,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit.
As of Monday, seven MTA workers had died from the coronavirus while at least another 333 workers had tested positive, and 2,700 were quarantined, officials said. The chairman of the MTA, Patrick J. Foye, also has the infection.
Outside the 170th Street station, the streets are nearly empty. Most stores have shuttered, their metal security gates pulled closed. The only places open were two pharmacies, where lines of customers curled out the front doors.
A short ride on the No. 4 train is Burnside Avenue station. Every morning riders still stream onto its outdoor platforms.
Cindy Garcia, a caseworker at a homeless shelter in Manhattan, kept her hands tucked deep inside her pockets. Her disinfecting regimen at work is meticulous: Every pen a client touches, every doorknob she grabs, every chair she sits on she wipes down with Lysol.
When she meets with a client, they sit on opposite ends of the room. But on the train, Garcia has no illusion about having that kind of control. She can keep her hands covered, she can wear a mask, but it is impossible to stay the recommended 6 feet away from other riders.
“Just look at these subway cars, they’re still crowded,” she said.
The No. 4 train was among the lines where service was reduced, a policy that health officials warn could lead to packed trains and increase health risks for the essential workers, including health care employees, who need to ride them.
Still, for other riders, the possibility of contracting the coronavirus was the least of their concerns.
Daouda Ba, a 43-year-old immigrant from Senegal, sat hands tucked between his knees at the Burnside Avenue station. Ba lives in a nearby shelter, where he says more than 50 men share three bathrooms. The idea of disinfecting doorknobs or even having hand sanitizer is laughable. Just getting time at the sink to wash his hands is hard enough.
“I’m already stuck in a crowded box in the shelter; I can’t do anything for my health,” he said, looking at the other people standing nearby. “The only thing I’m worried about is the economic stuff.”
Ba was laid off from his job working for a sightseeing bus tour company at the end of December. His boss said they would hire him back by the end of March, but now his job prospects are as uncertain as ever.
On a recent morning, a friend had called with a small paying job: Someone was moving out of their apartment and needed a hand. He sat waiting for the train to take him to Brooklyn, the rin-tin-tin of light rain hitting the metal awning.
“If I die, I die,” he said.
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