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MTA and de Blasio Running on Opposite Tracks for Reopening Plan

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A subway conductor watches the doors of an A train in Brooklyn during the coronavirus outbreak, April 7, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As the subway system reemerges from a coronavirus-induced ridership collapse, the MTA and Mayor Bill de Blasio are at odds over how to keep commuters socially distant once the city begins reopening next week.

During his Wednesday briefing, de Blasio said it’s “crucial” that the MTA block off every other seat on trains and buses that would have “stated public capacity limits” — a proposal ridiculed by the transit agency. 

“Like many of the mayor’s ideas, this is nice in theory, but utterly unworkable,” said Abbey Collins, an MTA spokesperson. “The mayor’s plan would allow us to serve only a tiny percentage of our riders — likely around 8%.”

A spokesperson for de Blasio said the top priority is to prevent a resurgence of the virus that has killed more 21,000 people in the city.

“It’s common sense that people shouldn’t sit directly next to each other on the subway in a pandemic,” said the spokesperson, Mitch Schwartz.

Rolling Ridership Numbers

Weekday subway ridership is down nearly 90% from pre-pandemic levels of about 5.5 million daily trips, but has climbed back to about 700,000 trips a day as of June 3. That’s up from a low of about 300,000 during the height of the coronavirus crisis.

De Blasio predicted that between 200,000 and 400,000 people will return to work once restrictions ease Monday — and that the MTA should mark where riders stand in stations and on trains and buses. He cited masking tape markers on the sidewalks outside of supermarkets as a model to be followed.

“People have been forming the line that way, they just need some guidance,” he said.

But an MTA source told THE CITY that transit officials were “baffled” by City Hall’s “unwillingness” to grasp, after a series of briefings between the two sides, that the every-other-seat idea would translate to carrying a tiny percentage of riders.

De Blasio’s call for trains to skip stops to avoid overcrowding, the source added, is a non-starter.

“We look forward to hearing more from the mayor and NYPD on their plans for enforcement and compliance with this proposal,” Collins said.

De Blasio said the city will provide extra personnel to distribute hand sanitizer and help the MTA distribute more than 1 million of the masks that have been mandatory in the subway since April. 

MTA Chairman Pat Foye made those requests Tuesday in a letter to city officials that laid out what’s needed when “essential” workers from the construction, manufacturing, wholesale and retail industries begin returning to work next week.

A Staggering Request

The MTA has been asking employers to stagger shifts and to continue remote working where possible.

“Whether it’s staggered shifts or continuing to work remotely, or taking a Lyft to work, it’s going to be a basically in everyone’s interest that the subways are not overcrowded and that riders feel safe there,” Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, which represents business leaders that employ more 1.5 million New Yorkers, told THE CITY.

Closures for cleaning of the system from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. are expected to continue, stymying late-shift workers. Some daytime riders said they plan to eventually return to the subways, whose farebox revenue has plummeted during the pandemic. 

“I would like to go back to the subway as soon as possible,” said William Blackmon, 31, of Washington Heights, who works in international development. “I don’t have the income to be Zipcar-ing, Uber-ing or taking taxis everywhere.”

De Blasio said Wednesday that he expects an increase in the use of personal and for-hire vehicles “in the next few months of transition.” But he warned that more cars on city streets will not be good long-term for congestion, health or global warming.

The MTA plans to restore full service Thursday on the 6, 7 and G lines, according to an internal memo obtained by THE CITY. They are the latest of several lines to get service increases, as more transit workers return to duty and ridership climbs.

“We’ve all changed forever in ways we don’t understand yet,” said Bob Liff, 71, a political consultant who works in Lower Manhattan. “But we still have to get around the city and there is no rational alternative to the subway.”

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