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As the role of trains is scrutinized in virus spread, MTA defends itself

Commuters walk from a train at the Ronkonkoma

Commuters walk from a train at the Ronkonkoma LIRR station on March 25. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

The MTA is defending itself against criticism from some academic and political leaders that its trains helped spread the coronavirus, including on the Long Island Rail Road to Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Although some New York City lawmakers have suggested a shutdown of the region’s transit system could have saved lives, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have said such a move also could have cost many more lives if essential workers could not have gotten where they needed to go.

“What’s clear is that this could only have caused more harm, as we now carry the doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters and other essential workers who are literally saving lives,” MTA chairman and chief executive Patrick Foye said last week. “When this ordeal ends, and it will, we will have proved our necessity not only during robust times, but in times of crisis.”

As the busiest public transportation system in the United States, the MTA’s network of subways, buses and commuter railroads has posed a challenge for officials charged with keeping the region and its economy moving, while also protecting transit riders and employees — at least 84 of whom have died from COVID-19-related illnesses. On the LIRR, which carried 91 million riders last year, 245 employees have tested positive, and one has died from the virus.

Epidemiologists long have studied the role of public transport systems in spreading infectious diseases, both because they carry passengers in confined spaces and because some diseases — including COVID-19 — can live for extended periods on smooth surfaces, like steel rails and poles on trains.

The role of 'social mixing'

M. Kumi Smith, an epidemiologist with the University of Minnesota, said that while it would take mass antibody testing of commuters to begin to determine how much the LIRR potentially helped spread the coronavirus, it’s already known that the railroad — which spans from Montauk to Manhattan and has a direct link to the AirTrain serving Kennedy Airport — facilitates the “social mixing” that helps viruses reach into different communities.

An infected passenger on his way to Babylon could potentially transmit the virus to one on his way to Ronkonkoma, who in turn could infect a Port Jefferson commuter, and so on.

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“When we have a lot of folks between Long Island and the boroughs mixing, that just means that one case that might have been in one borough now has made contact with people who themselves are able to spread out through the metro area,” Smith said. “And so what transit systems do is they keep that churn going.

"That’s really important for economic activity and for society to function, but from a disease prevention point of view, it’s definitely a challenge to overcome.”

A study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor Jeffrey Harris similarly reasoned that the MTA’s subway system “was a major disseminator — if not the principal transmission vehicle” for the coronavirus in New York City.

MTA officials and some academic leaders have dismissed that study, which they say has been neither published nor peer-reviewed, and draws conclusions without scientific evidence. Still, four New York City Council members cited it in a letter this month requesting a temporary shutdown of the transit system, which they called a “primary contributor to the spread of COVID-19.”

Foye has called the request “well intentioned, but … a bad idea” because it would limit the mobility of essential workers, who make up the majority of the system’s remaining customers. Ridership is down across the MTA system by about 95%, including on the LIRR. The MTA has curtailed weekday service to reflect the reduced demand.

MTA officials have said the reduced ridership allows passengers to practice social distancing and that other safety measures, including intensified disinfecting efforts, are also helping keep trains safe.

MTA officials have projected that about 60% of its riders will come back to the system by the end of the year. In preparation for their return, Foye said the MTA has been consulting with other transportation agencies from around the world to develop a “leading, robust plan” to protect riders when they return to the system.

Foye said the plan would include an intensified disinfecting of trains, as well as "customer and employee-driven safety" initiatives, like social distancing and the continued use of face masks. Foye said employers also could help by staggering business hours so there is not a crush of riders on trains at the same time.

Even with increased precautions, Babylon commuter Donna Angiulo, who has been home for more than a month, worries about the day she's back on the rails. She said she'd sooner miss her train or travel on a different branch than step into a crowded LIRR car again.

"The trains are clearly not cleaned enough. Even if cleaning is ramped up, it cannot be enough to prevent the spread of germs and growth of bacteria," said Angiulo, 56, a paralegal. "Now that we are experiencing a pandemic, my concerns of cleanliness of trains and hygiene of others are at the forefront of my thoughts."

'You have to have trains'

Mitchell Moss, director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management — a think tank — also has rebuked suggestions that the MTA played a major role in spreading the coronavirus. He noted that the “sustained, social contact” between people that is more likely to result in the transmission of the virus typically does not happen on trains. 

“Most of the people taking the Long Island Rail Road are very obedient. They sit down. They read their paper. They get up. And they get off,” said Moss, who chided city lawmakers calling for a shutdown of the transit system. “The train is vital because it allows people to participate in the economy. If you really want to have a vital economy, you have to have trains.”

As unthinkable as shutting down mass transit may seem to some, the epidemiologist Smith noted that the city of Wuhan, China, where the virus reportedly originated, did just that — and may have been better off for doing so.

“It was a very extreme decision, not very popular. But it might be argued that, in hindsight, if you can stomach that initial economic blow and overcome the epidemic … in the long run, the economic impact of the epidemic will be less,” said Smith, who believes the time has passed for such a tactic in New York.

“At this point, it’s a little late to be making that decision. I think the damage has kind of been done,” she said.

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