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New Signs of Life for the Subways as Riders Slowly Return for NYC’s ‘Reopening’

Teona Nesta in front of an A train in Brooklyn, June 8, 2020.
Teona Nesta in front of an A train in Brooklyn, June 8, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As New Yorkers trickled back into the subway system Monday, Teona Nesta compared the experience to “going to the first day of school.”

“It was a little bit weird,” said Nesta, who took the A train to her payroll administration job in DUMBO.

After three months of a global pandemic that drove ridership to historic lows and put the MTA on the edge of a financial abyss, some commuters returned to a subway-riding reality that now requires masks and offers spacing guidelines on formerly packed platforms and trains.

Riders at some stations were greeted by transit workers doling out hand sanitizer and masks. Nesta didn’t need one — her mask was emblazoned with a map of the subway system.

“It’s not the same city,” she said.

THE CITY did a visual survey of riders in sparsely crowded subway cars in Manhattan, Brooklyn and The Bronx and found that most — but not all — commuters were following the mask mandate.

Signs of the Times

Straphangers have stayed away for about three months during a crisis when pre-pandemic ridership of more than 5.5 million weekday trips cratered. At the system’s low point in the second week of April, there were about 200,000 trips a day, a figure that, as of last week, had inched up to about 700,000.

The MTA couldn’t immediately say how many New Yorkers rode the subway Monday, though officials had estimated that 200,000 to 400,000 people could return to work.

Long-absent commuters saw plenty of new signs in stations urging them to “Please keep a safe social distance from others.” And some noted the trains seemed cleaner than before the pandemic.

Freddie Bravo rides a 1 train in Manhattan, on June 8, 2020.
Freddie Bravo rides a 1 train in Manhattan, on June 8, 2020.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

That’s largely thanks to the scrubbing of subway cars and stations that Gov. Andrew Cuomo said have been disinfected more than half a million times since March. The daily shutdown of the subway system from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., when cleaning ramps up as the homeless are taken off of trains and out of stations, is set to continue until further notice.

At full capacity, about 100 riders can jam into a subway car. But on Monday morning, commuters did their best to space out on trains that, in many cases, had cars with fewer than 20 riders.

“People keep their distance and all, for right now,” said Freddie Bravo, 49, of Flushing, Queens, who was riding to work on the No. 1 train in Manhattan. “But when you get more riders coming back and businesses opening up, who knows how this will work, because there is only so much room on a subway car.”

‘It’s a Little Scary’

Phase I ridership is supposed to expand from the essential healthcare and service workers who used the subway during the worst of the pandemic to those employed in the construction, manufacturing, wholesale and retail industries.

“I haven’t been using it because they’ve been saying all this stuff about how it’s only for essential workers and blah, blah, blah, so I didn’t push the issue with that,” said Danny Schwartz, 67, of The Bronx, who was onboard a No. 5 train, heading to Manhattan for his job working with computers. “I’m going to go back to using it reasonably often.”

Annie-Saray Moreno, a 29-year-old home-health aide from Washington Heights, said she had limited her subway travels to a trip or two a week since March. On Monday, she was accompanied for the first time by her 3-year-old son, Johan Jr.

Annie-Saray Moreno and her 3-year-old son, Johan Jr., June 8, 2020.
Annie-Saray Moreno and her 3-year-old son, Johan Jr., June 8, 2020.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

“It’s a little scary, you know,” she said. “He’s not wearing a mask at all, he doesn’t want to wear it.”

The MTA has said 92% of the nearly 48,000 riders it counted at 23 subway stations between May 28 and June 4 wore masks.

“You have to look pretty hard to find someone who’s not wearing a mask,” Sarah Feinberg, the interim president of New York City Transit, said on 1010 WINS Monday.

Social distancing markers at the Jay Street-Metro Tech station, June 8, 2020.
Social distancing markers at the Jay Street-Metro Tech station, June 8, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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