NEW YORK – New York City's subway system will shut down each day from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. to increase cleaning of trains and stations during the coronavirus crisis, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday, two days after he called conditions in the subway “disgusting.” The closures, slated to start next week, will mark a rare instance of subways not running 24/7.
Meanwhile, a Navy hospital ship sent a month ago to relieve stress on hospitals has left the city, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg is backing a state effort to trace the spread of the disease, and the city said it would hand out free face coverings while increasing enforcement of social distancing measures.
Here are the latest coronavirus-related developments in New York:
SUBWAY SHUTDOWN FOR CLEANING
Subway trains, which had been disinfected at least once every 72 hours, will be cleaned once every 24 hours starting May 6, Cuomo said. Buses, vans and other alternative transportation will be provided for essential workers at no charge while the system is closed, he said.
Cuomo said the increased cleaning is a “daunting challenge,” but vital to keeping subways safe. They've continued to see high density while much of the rest of society practices social distancing. Images posted on social media in recent weeks have showed packed subway cars.
Dozens of transit employees have died of the coronavirus and the system has become a haven for homeless people during the crisis. Globally, making public transit safe is seen as a big hurdle in potentially easing lockdowns.
“You have to disinfect every place a hand could touch on a subway car. Every rail, every pole, every door,” Cuomo said. “Or, coughing, sneezing, wherever droplets could land.”
Cuomo highlighted a front-page report Tuesday in the New York Daily News chronicling incidents of indecent exposure, filth, people stretching out on seats and other problems.
He said the situation was “disrespectful” to essential workers who need the subway to commute and unsafe for homeless people who are congregating in trains without face masks or other protections.
Subway ridership has plunged by 92% since the start of the pandemic and the shutdown is planned for the part of the day where it is lowest. During the crisis, around 11,000 people have been using the subway during the time.
Commuter trains serving Long Island and the city’s northern suburbs will also be disinfected every 24 hours, he said. City buses will continue to run around-the-clock but will be rotated out of service for cleaning.
“Think about it, the entire public transit system in downstate New York will be disinfected every 24 hours,” Cuomo said. “We’re doing a lot of things here that we’ve never done before.”
The city's subway system has operated continuously, 24 hours a day since October 1904, with scattered interruptions caused by weather, blackouts and labor disputes.
A strike in 1966 knocked out service for 12 days, the longest stoppage in the system's history, according to the state agency that runs it, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. A 1980 strike closed service for 11 days, while one in 2005 lasted 3 days.
Trains were halted by massive power outages in 1965, 1977 and 2003; by storms, including Superstorm Sandy in 2015 and a blizzard in 2015; and for a few hours in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman said he'll push legislation requiring the MTA to resume 24/7 service as soon as the pandemic is over.
“The city that never sleeps needs a 24/7 subway system. It’s the lifeblood of our city — a public utility that keeps New York City moving at all hours of the day and night," the Manhattan Democrat said in a statement.
The homeless have long taken refuge on the city’s subways, but the problems that their plight poses — for them and other riders — has become more visible during the pandemic.
Advocates for the homeless say some are taking to trains because they worry about contracting the virus in shelters. Some advocates have called on the city to provide hotel rooms to people living on the streets.
Mayor Bill De Blasio said the city would send more outreach workers to end-of-the-line stations to try to persuade homeless people to go to shelters. Police have increased enforcement, removing more than 100 homeless people from trains on Monday alone.
Giselle Routhier, the policy director of advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless, said people are sleeping in the subway because the city and state “are steadfastly refusing to offer them somewhere better to go.”
“Punitively closing the subways and sending in more police will only make things worse,” Routhier said in a statement. “What is actually needed are safe, private spaces where maintaining social distancing is possible.”
NAVY SHIP SAILS OFF
The 1,000-bed USNS Comfort hospital ship left New York City for its home port of Norfolk, Virginia on Thursday having treated just 182 coronavirus patients. A surge in cases in the hard-hit city fell short of the worst-case projections.
Eleven people being treated on the ship died from coronavirus and several ship personnel came down with the disease, the Defense Department said.
“The situation has changed but we’re not done," Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command, said as he saw the ship off.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week he and President Donald Trump agreed the Comfort was no longer needed in New York City.
“I believe Comfort not only brought comfort but also saved lives,” Cuomo said.
The Comfort's arrival last month came amid projections showing the state needing to double hospital capacity to 110,000 beds by the end of April.
Hospitalizations peaked far below that, at 18,825 on April 12, falling considerably since. The tally of new hospital admissions fell Wednesday to 933, lowest since March 24.
More than 18,300 people in the state have died from coronavirus, though the total doesn't include more than 5,300 deaths in the city that were attributed to the virus on death certificates but weren’t confirmed by a lab test.
On Wednesday, 306 people died from the disease, the lowest daily total since March 29, when there were 253 fatalities. The state peaked with 799 deaths in one day on April 9.
BLOOMBERG BOOSTS TRACING
New York City's billionaire former mayor is putting up $10.5 million to help the state track and stem the spread of coronavirus through what's known as contact tracing.
Michael Bloomberg said Thursday his Bloomberg Philanthropies charitable foundation will help hire and train thousands of investigators and provide technological assistance, including developing apps to aid their work.
Contact tracing involves tracking down people who've been around someone with the virus so they can get tested and quarantine themselves if they're positive.
“When social distancing is relaxed, contact tracing is our best hope for isolating the virus when it appears and keeping it isolated,” Bloomberg said.
CITY TO GIVE OUT FREE MASKS
New York City is assigning more than 1,000 employees to enforce social distancing guidelines and distribute 275,000 face coverings at parks and other public spaces as the coronavirus pandemic stretches toward summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
The city is also ramping up coronavirus testing and production of gowns for health care workers. De Blasio said 11 coronavirus testing sites will perform 14,000 tests this week, increasing to 43,000 tests at 30 sites by the week of May 18.
City businesses that weren't making any surgical gowns before the pandemic are now producing 125,000 a week, de Blasio said. Millions more are being flown in from Vietnam, providing enough supply to last through mid-May, he said.
Associated Press writers Karen Matthews and David Porter in New York and Marina Villeneuve in Albany contributed to this report.