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For weeks, bus drivers in New York City begged their bosses for N95 masks to protect themselves against the spread of Covid-19. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, heeding the advice of the Centers for Disease Control, insisted they weren’t necessary, only to change course at the beginning of April.
Meanwhile, drivers kept getting sick. Depots emptied out. Going to work, for those who remained, was a terror.
“I’ll be operating a bus Monday morning. It’s frightening,” said Terence Layne, a driver in Manhattan, in an interview over the weekend. “Every morning I leave my home and I ask myself, Is this the day? Is this the day I become contaminated and infected?”
Across America, public transit systems are scaling back service to contain the rapid spread of the virus. BART in San Francisco has severely cut weekday service. Los Angeles is reducing bus service as more drivers get sick. Most routes in Seattle were cut back in March.
New York City, where ridership is down 90 percent and trains and buses run far less frequently, is no different. But transit workers continue to die from Covid-19. They’ve died at three times the combined rate of the city’s police and fire departments, which employ first responders like EMS workers.
With almost 80,000 confirmed cases and more than 3,000 dead, New York City is the unquestioned national epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. The city is fully locked down, most workplaces and businesses shuttered. Residents nervously wait indoors, listening to the wailing of sirens, day and night.
For the many thousands of workers still deemed essential, there’s no option to lock the door and wait for a better day. Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus drivers and train operators still need to steer the city’s buses and subway cars. While service has fallen off dramatically from where it was before the crisis began, this still can mean a million riders circulating through the system on a weekday. Doctors, nurses, home health aides, sanitation workers, police officers, and other essential workers often require public transit to get to work.
Train conductors can at least isolate themselves in their cabs. Bus drivers are more vulnerable, likely to be exposed to riders mere feet away—both while riding, and entering the bus and paying fares. Nationally, unionized drivers are trying to put more pressure on municipalities to provide protective equipment.
“The rail systems have compartments for drivers. The subway rail systems aren’t the problem. It’s really the bus,” said Robert Cervero, a transportation planning expert at the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s the workhorse of the public transit system. Rail gets all the glamor but it’s the buses carrying people around the world.”
A total of 1,167 MTA employees have tested positive for Covid-19. They include the agency’s chairman, Patrick Foye. Thirty-three have died, and more than 5,600 are in quarantine.
Bus operators in New York City are keeping their own unofficial tally of self-reported positive cases. At least 274 have tested positive, according to a tally shared with The Nation.
Though riding the bus is now effectively free in New York City because riders now board from the back, away from the fare box and the driver, there is still fear over coming into contact with wheelchair-bound customers who need to be secured on the bus and can board through the front door.
“What has it been like dealing with this virus? Like everyone else, it’s surreal, it’s crazy and frightening and doesn’t stop,” said J.P. Patafio, a vice president for Brooklyn bus service at Transport Workers Union Local 100, the influential transit union representing the city’s 41,000 transit workers. “In a sense, it’s kind of like treading water in the ocean during a tempest. It’s hard.”
Layne, who is the shop steward at his Manhattan depot, estimates that only about 300 of the 650 operators who normally work out of the depot are left. The others are home sick or self-quarantining after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19. If one driver tests positive, those who operated the bus before and after the ill driver need to quarantine too. Riders don’t know if they are entering a bus that once had an ill driver.
Protective equipment is finally coming for all MTA workers. Two hundred and fifty thousand N95 masks will be distributed to subway operators, train conductors, and bus drivers across New York State.
Since the outbreak began, the MTA said, it has provided employees with 3.2 million gloves, 240,000 masks, 45,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, 50,000 gallons of cleaning supplies, and 7,000 boxes of sanitizing wipes. Transit workers credit the MTA for disinfecting trains and vehicles regularly, having begun a rigorous cleaning process early in the outbreak. To limit interactions between riders and transit workers, the MTA banned the use of cash.
But scars still linger from the fight to obtain the N95 masks. Union officials resent that they needed to battle with the MTA to acquire equipment they were demanding many weeks ago.
“I think [the MTA] reacted flat-footed. They reacted slowly,” Patafio said. “I remember one meeting in the middle of March, I said we’re facing a pandemic, people can get sick and die. They said, ‘Well, it’s not a pandemic, it’s a health care emergency crisis.”
Among city transit workers, bitterness remains over how the MTA approached its white-collar workforce—those concentrated behind desks at central headquarters—and those operating buses and trains. Schedules, they allege, weren’t adjusted soon enough to prevent crowding at employment facilities. At bus depots and crew reporting locations for train operators, employees clock in and wait in assigned quarters for a tour to begin.
The sheer sprawl of the agency may also work against it as N95 masks are disbursed. Each of the city’s five boroughs has a general manager who can determine how soon drivers began to receive their masks. There’s growing fear, among drivers, over a lack of coordination.
The MTA, in addition, has been criticized for failing to exactly follow its plan to combat a pandemic, first drawn up in 2012. Personal protective equipment (PPE), stockpiled for a crisis like this one, was not immediately released.
The MTA, in turn, said the plan did not account for changing federal guidance, particularly on the use of protective equipment for certain employees. Foye, the MTA chairman, in the past blamed a global shortage of PPE in hospitals for withholding masks for bus drivers and other transit workers. He said he was waiting for New York to increase its stockpile.
“The plan includes stockpiling appropriate resources. What it did not contemplate was that medical guidance during this specific pandemic would be to not use certain stockpiled items for all employees,” said Pat Warren, in the MTA’s chief safety officer, in a statement. “We are no longer following that guidance, and decided last week to deploy resources regardless.”
There is also the thorny debate over what to do about scheduling. Buses are currently running on a weekend schedule. Patafio wants further reductions to a “war schedule” far beyond what’s currently on offer, in part to protect drivers. He suggests tailoring routes to pick up essential workers like doctors and nurses.
John Samuelsen, TWU’s international president and the former head of TWU Local 100, isn’t as sure about cutting service further. “The reduced schedule is a double-edged sword,” he said, pointing to the overcrowding on certain bus and train lines after service was cut drastically. “This is uncharted territory for us.”
Transit experts aren’t judging the MTA particularly harshly, given the unprecedented nature of Covid-19 and the flailing federal response. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who effectively controls the MTA, has not experienced any blowback.
“It’s hard to Monday morning quarterback based on what we know,” said Benjamin Kabak, a frequent Cuomo critic who writes the Second Ave. Sagas subway blog. “They started out following federal employee guidelines. You sort of have to question at some point where common sense comes into play.”