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New York City's Subway Ends 24-Hour Service Amid Pandemic

In its 116-year history, New York City's subway has only ceased 24-hour service a handful of times, usually when there's an extreme weather event or strikes. It also did so after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to shutter the city, ridership has dropped by 92%, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was told by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that the subways cannot be used by the homeless as an overnight shelter.

Now, the agency is halting service from 1 to 5 a.m. indefinitely, so workers can clean subway cars more effectively and remove the estimated 2,200 homeless New Yorkers who stay on trains and in stations each night.

This comes after an article in the Daily News showed trashed subway cars and homeless people sleeping on trains. Cuomo called it "disgusting."

"To let homeless people stay on the trains, in the middle of a global health pandemic, with no masks, no protective equipment, you're not helping the homeless," the governor said.

The MTA workforce has also lost 109 workers to COVID-19, the most of any city and state agency to date.

Around midnight on Wednesday, 1,000 NYPD officers descended on subway stations across the city to assist with removing homeless people from subway cars and stations. There were some social workers to offer shelter, but at terminals like the one on Coney Island, their presence was dwarfed by the number of police officers.

On a New York City subway car, one couple refused to get off the train for several minutes. The train's conductor said he sees this couple every night on the trains.
Stephen Nessen / WNYC
On a New York City subway car, one couple refused to get off the train for several minutes. The train's conductor said he sees this couple every night on the trains.

There, dozens of people crowded the platform, some carrying bags overflowing with plastic bottles, others wore tattered clothes, some were shoeless and many looked dazed. Each time a train arrived, more homeless people aboard had to be removed from the train, and then from the station.

In one car, there was a couple sleeping under a blanket who wouldn't budge. So, two officers tapped a metal flashlight against a pole.

A woman emerged and cursed at the police. The man she was with didn't move, so the officer checked his pulse before determining he was fine. Both eventually get off the train, after several minutes.

That is what shutting down the New York City subway is like. It's less about turning off the lights, and more about clearing out a homeless population that would rather ride the trains all night than enter the city's crowded, and in some cases, unsafe shelters.

Train conductor Eddie Muniz, 56, welcomed the beefed-up police force. He said every time he goes to work now, he fears he'll contract the coronavirus from the homeless population.

"My kids cry when I come to work , they're nervous they might not see me again," he said. " 'Cause if I get sick, they can't see me in the hospital."

But Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, said more police is not going to reduce homelessness.

"It's not only just a waste of resources but will push people farther into the shadows, will push people into the elements on the streets, will not offer them a place to go to isolate themselves and protect themselves and protect others," she said. "It can only make things worse, this is not a solution."

The MTA is facing a nearly $8 billion deficit this year because of lost farebox revenue and state taxes. While federal officials have approved $3.9 billion in relief aid, the agency hasn't secured the other half of the funding it requested.

The agency hasn't said how much the additional cleaning and policing might cost during the shutdown hours, other than to say it hopes hundreds of thousands of dollars will be reimbursed by the federal government. MTA says the overnight shutdown will continue until public health officials determine it's safe.

Copyright 2020 WNYC Radio

Stephen Nessen