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MTA Bus Drivers Brace for Subway Shutdown Unruliness Spillover

An MTA worker drives a bus through Flushing, Queens during the coronavirus outbreak.
An MTA worker drives a bus through Flushing, Queens during the coronavirus outbreak, April 27, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Spitting attacks against MTA bus drivers are up, even as ridership has shrunk during the coronavirus crisis, agency statistics show.

Now with overnight subway service to be suspended daily from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. starting Wednesday, bus operators are concerned more unruly passengers will make their way from trains onto their vehicles, which will be out in far greater numbers.

“Being a bus driver at 1 a.m., you’re already on edge,” driver Michael Enriquez, 31, told THE CITY. “This amplifies things because it seems the problem is being shifted from the subways to the buses.”

Since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mid-April executive order that all people must wear masks while using the public transportation system, there have been at least eight incidents in which MTA bus operators were harassed or verbally threatened, according to agency spokesperson Andrei Berman.

Through the end of March, the MTA logged 31 incidents in which drivers were spit on, up 40% from 22 during the same period last year.

“Attacks on our bus drivers are completely reprehensible,” Berman said. “These are the heroes moving essential frontline workers in the fight against this pandemic.”

During the overnight subway shutdown, the MTA plans to put an additional 344 buses — free to ride — into service to move the approximately 11,000 riders who have been taking the trains from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Previously, 235 buses ran during that time.

The MTA is also giving pre-dawn riders employed in key service jobs the opportunity to book on-demand rides with taxis and for-hire cars as part of its “Essential Connector” program.

“We are a public transportation agency, we want people to be using public transport,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit. “But we’re going to make sure we don’t leave people high and dry.”

‘Picking Up the Slack’

The shift of riders to the buses, though, has bus drivers and the Transport Workers Union worried about a potential influx of disturbed passengers.

There will be security at each subway station and homeless outreach workers at all terminals, according to MTA Chairman Patrick Foye. Bus employees on Tuesday received a bulletin advising them to report “apparent homeless customers” to the Bus Command Center and “continue in service.”

“That has been flagged for us and we have flagged that for NYPD,” Feinberg said.

The front of an MTA bus in Brooklyn is blocked off during the coronavirus outbreak.
The front of an MTA bus in Brooklyn is blocked off during the coronavirus outbreak, April 26, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The MTA and the police are going to have to manage this very carefully,” said Tony Utano, president of TWU Local 100.

The NYPD has said it will deploy more than 1,000 police officers to enforce the shutdown of all 472 subway stations, with city social services workers steering those who have been sheltering in the subway toward help.

But the NYPD did not respond to questions from THE CITY about staffing level on buses Tuesday, when two men were reportedly stabbed aboard a Manhattan bus at about 3 p.m.

Bus drivers are now separated by a chain and three rows of seats from passengers who enter and exit through rear side doors. But that hasn’t provided much protection from aggressive riders, drivers said.

Georgetta Sterling, an MTA bus driver for 19 years, said she had to call for police help two weeks ago after a passenger became angry when she asked her to put on a mask. In 2017, Sterling said, a passenger spit on her after she asked the person to fold a stroller.

“We were getting the abuse before, and this is just an elevation of that,” Sterling told THE CITY. “We’ll be picking up the slack for the subway and you just don’t know what you’re going to encounter. It’s scary.”

Cuomo and MTA officials have said the overnight subway shutdown is expected to last for the duration of the pandemic, further straining an agency that has suffered close to 100 worker COVID-19 deaths. Many of the dead were bus operators.

Eddie Muniz, a subway conductor who worked on the overnight shift, said he expects the shutdown won’t be easy for bus drivers.

“If they can’t control the problems underground, how are they going to control them above-ground?” Muniz asked. “They need to have some type of place for people to go that isn’t the buses.”

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