NEW YORK — Touching a germy pole or interacting with a sick person was always a concern for the millions of people who use the New York City public transportation system every day, but fears have skyrocketed since the number of cases in the state surged in recent days as the new virus spreads across the globe.
New Yorkers, who pride themselves on being unfazed by the daily aggravations of urban living, particularly the ones provided by their subway system, have been persevering — albeit with a bit more wariness.
“I try not to touch the railings and the turnstiles with my hands,” said Joan Chiverton, a freelance illustrator who was waiting at a subway station on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I also try to stand away from people who cough. I do that normally, but now I’m actually moving away from people and not worrying if it looks like I’m being rude.”
As of midday Monday, there have been more than 140 cases of the new coronavirus confirmed in New York. Nearly 100 of those cases trace back to one of a community in the Westchester County suburb of New Rochelle connected to one of the first patients who tested positive in the state. Other commuter-rail suburbs in Connecticut and New Jersey have also reported stray cases.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.
Government and transit officials have stressed that the virus can’t easily be transmitted by casual contact, such as sharing a subway car with someone who is infected. But they also have urged people to walk or ride a bike to work, telecommute or stagger their work hours so they don’t ride at peak times. The latter strategy was also used by the city during the 1918 influenza epidemic.
Subway trains remain full during rush hours, though Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said at a briefing Monday that anecdotal evidence suggests they have been less crowded in recent days.
“We’re urging employers to let people change the times that they’re coming into work and change the times that they’re leaving work so that we can stagger people and have less crowding,” interim New York City Transit head Sarah Feinberg said Monday. “I can see that happening.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said people who are ill should also stay off public transit if they can.
“When we’re all packed like sardines at rush hour, you’re really close to your fellow New Yorkers. We’d like people, if they’re sick, not even to be in that situation,” he said.
The MTA is the nation’s largest transit system and operates the city’s subways and buses in addition to the Long Island Rail Road and MetroNorth rail systems stretching to the tip of Long Island and north to New Haven, Connecticut. The agency has accelerated its cleaning operations to disinfect several hundred subway and rail stations and thousands of buses, subway and train cars.
MTA chairman and CEO Pat Foye said Monday that over the weekend more than 4,000 subway cars, 2,500 trains and 5,300 buses were cleaned.
“I want to assure the public that the subways remain safe, “ he said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo joked last week that riders shouldn’t be alarmed if they smell a strange chemical odor on the subways in the weeks ahead.
“It’s not bad cologne or perfume; it is bleach,” Cuomo said.
Similar train cleaning measures have been put in place in other major cities hit by the outbreak.
Japan, like New York, has urged flexible working hours to reduce overcrowding on trains. Italy added dispensers of hand disinfectant to trains run by state railways before restricting residents from traveling in parts of the country where the infection rate is highest.
In Seoul, South Korea, legions of workers in protective suits and goggles have been spraying down subway stations with disinfectant. At some train stations, officials have also been using heat-detecting cameras to look for people who might have a fever.
Spokesmen for the Washington, D.C. Metro and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, serving Philadelphia and its suburbs, said Monday ridership levels didn’t appear to have been affected yet by virus-related concerns.
Uncertainty remains about what level of contact could be dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the virus can be spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and the droplets are inhaled by someone nearby. It also can be picked up by touching an infected surface or object and then touching the mouth or nose, though the CDC says that isn’t the main way the virus can spread.
On Monday, so many people took advantage of the city’s bike share program, Citi Bike, that docking stations in Lower Manhattan ran out of space in the morning.
Natalie Davis takes the subway into Manhattan from Brooklyn to her job with The Nature Conservancy and said concerns about the virus haven’t made her change her routine. The 31-year-old added, though, that she’s noticed people acting differently near the subway entrance at the World Trade Center, where she and two co-workers were soliciting donations.
“Usually we high-five people and they’re into it, but in the last two weeks or so people have been like, ‘Hey, that’s OK, I’m good,’” she said.
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