Last week, I pointed out a recent report that blamed much of the spread of COVID-19 in New York City on the subway system. Recently, I’ve collected a series of memos suggesting that New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is specifically culpable in this spread.
During the 2012 influenza epidemic, the MTA issued a policy directive stating that the agency would keep a six‐week supply of sanitizer wipes, sanitizer gel, and N95 respirators on hand for use by employees. The directive specifically stated that the masks would be available for bus drivers, station attendants, train conductors, and cleaners, among others.
The first COVID-19 death in America was reported by Washington state on February 29, 2020. Rather than make its supposed six‐week stockpile of masks available to its employees, MTA issued a memo on March 6 forbidding employees from wearing masks, even if they had their own masks. The memo worried that, if bus operators and station attendants were allowed to wear masks, it could lead to “panicked purchasing of facemasks … thereby putting health care providers and their communities at greater risk.”
Admittedly, as of March 6, there was still some debate among epidemiologists about whether healthy people needed to wear masks to protect themselves from the virus. But it is one thing to not mandate that masks be worn; it is quite another to forbid employees from wearing them. MTA also apparently failed to follow its own policy directive to maintain a six‐week supply of respirators.
Nine days later, on March 15, MTA reported that the first of its employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. However, it wasn’t until March 30 that MTA rescinded its order forbidding employees from wearing masks. It may only have been a coincidence that MTA’s CEO, Patrick Foye, had tested positive for COVID-19 the day before or that the first deaths of two MTA employees from coronavirus had taken place on March 26.
On April 9, MTA announced that it had acquired 75,000 masks and had made them available to its workers “since March 1.” Technically, that was true, but it didn’t begin distributing them until around March 31. When employees complained that MTA had not made the masks available before then, MTA officials grumbled that it was “a transportation organization, not a medical provider.” So much for the 2012 policy directive.
On April 16, MTA finally issued a bulletin mandating that both employees and passengers wear masks. But by that time, more than 70 MTA employees had died of the coronavirus and at least 6,000 were in quarantine.
The MTA also signed a stipulation with the local transit union agreeing to pay out $500,000 in death benefits to any active employees who died after contracting the coronavirus, without debating whether the coronavirus was the actual cause of death or whether the employee had been infected when on duty. Employees who had lost friends to the virus suspect that the agency agreed to this to minimize the chance of lawsuits for much larger amounts due to its failure to protect its own employees.
Now that the virus may be winding down in New York, several city council members are urging Governor Cuomo to shut down the subways. In retrospect, however, it is clear that Cuomo should have shut MTA down as soon as he realized the pandemic would be serious.
As I noted last week, academic studies published in 2011 and 2018, among others, made it clear that, in the event of a pandemic, transit systems would likely be a major source of infection. One even found that people who rode transit were nearly six times more likely to have acute respiratory infections than those who didn’t.
Rather than shut down, however, MTA and other transit agencies continue to operate, insisting that they are providing a vital service for “essential workers.” The reality is that those essential workers would be much safer getting to work in private automobiles than taking transit.