Two men who cops say were homeless died while riding subway trains during a grim 13-hour stretch over the weekend, raising concerns about the spread of COVID-19 just as the MTA aims to close the system overnight to disinfect cars and to move indigent passengers to above-ground shelters.
In the first incident, MTA crews cleaning a C train at the line’s northern terminal at 168th St. came across a man slumped over at 7:30 p.m. Friday, police said. The 57-year old man likely died of natural causes.
”It’s scary going back to work and the first day this happened," said train conductor Joanne Green, who was on her first day back to work after taking sick time because she’d been exposed to COVID-19.
“There is a lot of homeless people on the trains and I am very scared daily. People have on masks, but most don’t. My co-workers and I are very vulnerable to these conditions and would like to see something done. It takes a toll on us as well.”
At 8:30 a.m. Saturday on the other side of the city, another team of transit workers who were clearing out subway cars found a 61-year-old dead man sprawled across several seats on a No. 4 train at the Utica Ave. station in Brooklyn. The victim was found next to a walker, and is also believed to have died of natural causes.
With subway ridership down by 93% as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, MTA crews were alarmed at two deaths in such a short period of time.
MTA spokesman Ken Lovett said the agency recorded 37 deaths in the subway during the first four months of the year, 11 of which were from natural causes. That’s up slightly from the same period in 2019, when 28 people died on the subway, nine from natural causes.
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“We have repeatedly said the subways are no replacement for shelter and if these two individuals were indeed homeless, as suspected, it’s clear more needs to be done by the city to ensure all New Yorkers have access to needed shelter and services," Lovett said.
Gov. Cuomo last week announced plans to shut down the subway from 1 to 5 a.m. daily starting Wednesday to disinfect all subway cars, buses and transit facilities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The move marks the first time in the subway’s 115-year history the system will lose overnight service — and will force thousands of homeless people who have turned to mass transit for shelter onto the street each night.
It’s unclear what kind of aid will be offered to those who’ll get booted out of the system each night. Cops and outreach workers cannot force the homeless to accept outreach services unless they are deemed to be at risk to themselves or to others.
“You have to get the homeless out of the subway and provide them the services they need, including safe shelter and medical treatment.” said Transport Workers Union Local 100 president Tony Utano, whose members have for years have complained about homeless people living on mass transit.
“Transit workers are worried they could catch the coronavirus from the homeless who are camped out in the system,” Utano added. "That’s why we support closing the system overnight during the pandemic for intensified cleaning and disinfecting.”