By Mariel Priven
Disclaimer: I was infected with COVID-19 in March, and have since tested positive for antibodies, so I probably feel more comfortable riding the subway than the average, self-isolated reader. That being said, I took every precaution I could, as there is still a lot unknown about the immunity associated with antibodies, and out of concern for the safety of my family members who were not sick.
I decided to ride the subway in the late morning so as to give essential and phase one workers priority and space. I also went with the following route with the hopes of learning the most about the lines and stations you all are most likely to use: I rode the 1 train from 96th to 59th, and then the C back up to 86th.
As I walked down the stairs of the 93rd street Broadway entrance to the 96th street station, I was immediately met with the familiar subway smell I hadn’t inhaled in three-and-a-half months. It’s one of those smells I can’t name, but automatically equate with the subway. It didn’t suggest dirt or germs the way one might associate with our subway, but rather the century-old and reliable system used by millions of New Yorkers.
When I entered the station, it was essentially empty. I refilled my long-unused MetroCard, and immediately noticed that the keypad where I entered my debit card’s security code was clean. I had never seen the buttons so shiny.
I swiped in at 10:23 AM, taking note of the functioning OMNY readers, but unsure if they had been there on my last ride on March 1st.
I walked down to the downtown trains and estimated 20–30 people on the platform, all spread out; decals on the floor of the station and platform indicated a safe distance to maintain between passengers. Everyone was wearing masks, and an MTA employee was emptying and replacing the trash.
I boarded the 1 train at 10:25, and instantly noticed the cleanliness everyone has spoken of. The familiar orange and red seats were more vibrant and shinier than I’d ever seen them; the poles practically sparkled; the floor felt smooth and clean, absent any unconfirmed sticky substance; and the air felt fresh, clean, and breathable. The cleanliness of the car is probably only noticeable to New Yorkers and other frequent riders — it doesn’t scream Lysol or feel artificially covered in disinfectant, but it’s undoubtedly cleaner than any subway car in which I’ve ridden, and I’ve ridden in a lot.
My ride to 59th went smoothly. There were only three to five other passengers in my car at any given moment, and they were all wearing masks. The stations we passed were all pretty empty, all with those floor decals marking six feet, and I only saw one man without a mask.
One man boarded my car at 72nd street, mask and all, holding one of those disposable flossers. It was unclear whether he was using it to touch surfaces and avoid using his hands—people have gotten quite creative these days—or to unhygienically floss on the subway. I never saw him use it.
At 66th I saw the aforementioned unmasked man, who appeared to be experiencing homelessness.
At 59th a few people exited onto the platform with me, and all, save one, were masked. As I walked to the B/C train, the platform felt extremely empty.
I boarded an uptown C train at 10:34. It was also much cleaner, but not as shiny as the 1 had felt. Only two other passengers were on the car with me, both masked.
Again, the ride went smoothly, with rather empty platforms, consistent floor decals, and masked riders.
At 10:38 I exited the train at 86th and Central Park West. The platform felt very clean—cleaner than the 96th street 1/2/3 station, probably a result of the large number of people who use the 96th street station for its easy access to 42nd street.
I rubbed some hand sanitizer in my hands and headed above ground.
Overall, I felt very safe riding the subway. It was clear that the overwhelming majority of riders were taking the necessary precautions to keep themselves and others safe, and that the MTA was doing its part as well. I was definitely not riding at rush hour and can confidently say that the late morning hour provided a safe and comfortable time to ride.
If you’re working from home and don’t need to ride the subway, maybe give priority to essential workers for now. But if your work restarts with phase two or you need to get somewhere a little farther than usual, the subway felt like a good option right now — at least based on my experience. The cars are clean, there are very few people riding, nearly everyone has masks, and everyone is maintaining safe distances between each other. Chances are that you can ride the subway with less contact and greater distance from others than in a narrow store aisle.