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How On Earth Will NYC Move People After COVID-19?

On June 8, New York City will begin the slow process of restarting its economy, sending a fraction of its private workforce back to their jobs. Is the city or the MTA ready to get them there? We hope you took some UCB improv classes.

On Friday, Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo answered the question with a collective shrug, a rare show of unity for the two men who have famously feuded over everything from the taxing the rich to dealing with a terrified deer.

De Blasio cemented his plan as being “no plan” at his morning news conference on Friday morning and then emphasized that during a later radio appearance. First, the mayor told reporters that it’s not possible right now to help New Yorkers with their transportation needs, but said he believed in their ability to make it work.

“People are going to have to improvise, and I believe they will,” de Blasio said when he was asked how an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 returning workers will get around.

Later, on WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show,” the mayor continued to be de blaséo about the city’s responsibility to avoid total gridlock, since that concern doesn’t exist in the real world.

“I’m in a real world place, Brian. I think we’re nowhere near the number of people on the road or the number of people in the subways that we normally would have. Even if everyone uses their car, it’s not in the next few months going to create the kind of congestion we’re used to by any stretch. So, I want people to feel comfortable with mass transit, but I know a certain number of people are going to use their car. For the next few months, we’re going to get by with that,” the mayor told the talk show host.

Later on Friday, Gov. Cuomo was asked about the mayor’s improv comment. The car-loving governor, famously photographed driving a Dodge Charger in Wall Street’s pedestrian-only road last week, said we all have choices to make and left it at that.

Mayor de Blasio told Lehrer “we’re not getting enough clarity” from the MTA when he was asked about bus ridership and the transit agency’s plans for moving New Yorkers around, which drew a caustic response from New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, who tweeted that she “no idea what the mayor is talking about.”

With all due respect. We have no idea what the mayor is talking about. The MTA has briefed City Hall multiple times on reopening, including another productive meeting held just yesterday. If the Mayor has questions, he can pick up the phone and call us at any time.

— Sarah Feinberg (@FeinbergSarah) May 29, 2020


The subway has been seen as a particularly egregious coronavirus vector, although the science is hardly definitive. In Japan, for instance, researchers didn’t find any coronavirus clusters emanating from commuter trains, which they attributed to the fact that commuters wore masks and don’t speak to each other (hey, New Yorkers are great at that!). MTA officials are still formulating their plan on how to keep the subways safe as more New Yorkers return to it, with safety measures mostly centered around mandatory mask-wearing in subway stations.

MTA Board member and Cuomo budget director Rob Mujica told reporters on Friday that the agency is running at about 80 percent of normal service right now, and that the service will increase as ridership returns during Phase I. The MTA has still not addressed when the subway will resume 24 hour service, which could mean returning construction workers on early-morning shifts will need to be accommodated by the MTA’s Essential Service buses between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.

The federal response to commuting and the pandemic does not look encouraging for New York City, either. The Centers for Disease Control took the extraordinary step of recommending that commuters drive instead of taking public transit. If that advice was followed in this city, the gridlock would paralyze the city. The MTA, for its part, pushed back with a statement from Chairman and CEO Pat Foye on Friday in which he called the federal guidance “confounding”:

The CDC’s latest guidance marks yet another confounding recommendation from the nation’s top public health authority. Encouraging people, especially those without cars and in congested areas like New York, not to take public transit is misguided. Transit is, and has long been, the safest way to move around any city. Our transit and bus system is cleaner and safer than it has been in history, as we clean and disinfect around the clock. Everyone who rides the MTA is required to wear a mask, a uniform policy we adopted for our workforce before the CDC reversed its previous guideline and recommended all Americans wear masks. We will continue to take every possible action to protect public health and safety, and the federal government telling people not to ride mass transit sets us back decades.

Foye also wrote what he called an “open letter to New York’s business community” in which he urged “key employers in the city” to institute a plan to stagger work hours in order to keep trains and buses from being overwhelmed.

The New York Stock Exchange has been highest-profile business to welcome some employees back, but explicitly barred them from taking public transportation to get to work, although the traders themselves have not been fans of NYSE’s plan. It’s yet to be seen whether other employers follow suit, or what the city’s conversations with employers has been as far as staggering office hours to ensure trains running during traditional rush hours are not packed cheek-t0-cheek.

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