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NYC subways to shut for nightly cleaning, as contact tracer training ramps up

Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

New York City subways will be shutting down each night for disinfecting and cleaning starting May 6 and a plan to greatly ramp up contact tracing is beginning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced at his daily coronavirus briefing Thursday, which included guest appearances by the present and former New York City mayors.

Cuomo said the subways will be closed from 1 to 5 a.m. each morning for a complete cleaning and disinfecting of each car on all trains. The governor said ridership has plummeted due to the coronavirus related shutdowns. But he said essential workers, including health care and grocery store workers, still need public transportation to get to work and they need to be protected from further risk of infection. Public transport workers have also been coming down with the virus at a higher than average rate.

“They’re on those trains. They deserve to be kept safe. They deserve to have a clean, safe ride to and from work, and they’re going to have it,” Cuomo said. “And we’re going to move heaven and earth to make sure that happens.”

The governor admits it’s a monumental undertaking and predicts “there will be bumps along the way.” In addition to the mass cleaning, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will also coordinate buses and even Uber, Lyft and other for- hire car rides for each worker that needs one during those hours.

Long Island Railroad and Metro North cars will also be cleaned and disinfected daily, but it will not require a shutdown of those services, which run from New York City to its suburbs.  

New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio, who joined the briefing virtually, said closing the subways will also end the growing problem of homeless people using subways as a place to sleep during the night, which increases their chances of infection. He said police officers will work with homeless advocates to encourage them to go to shelters where they can receive other services, as well.   

“Because if you’re not going back and forth all night on a train, you’re actually coming above ground, where outreach workers are there to help you,” deBlasio said. “Where NYPD officers trained in homeless outreach are there to support homeless people and get them to a better situation.”

Also appearing remotely at the briefing was deBlasio’s predecessor, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg is financing and organizing a vast contact tracing effort that will provide 30 tracers for every 100,000 people. Under the present rate of infections, 17,000 tracers could be needed to help isolate future outbreaks of the virus and to enable businesses and schools to reopen and remain open. Bloomberg said the training will be conducted through Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and will be rigorous.

“It will cover all the basic information of epidemics, contact tracing and privacy,” said Bloomberg, who said trainees will have to pass a test at the end of the program.

“We’re not going to put people out there who don’t know what they are doing,” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg said they are also developing cell phone apps to help tracers, though Cuomo said there are privacy issues with some app designs that can sense what other cell phones have been in close proximity to a user’s phone.

There are also plans to identify hotel rooms where a person infected with the virus can isolate for 14 days, if they live in a crowded house or apartment.

Bloomberg said the program, once completed, will be made publicly available to help other states and nations who want to undertake a contact tracing program.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.