Can New York City Really Reopen?

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June 1, 2020 9:56 a.m.

Mentioned last week that the big hole in any reopening plan for New York City, the most hard hit region in the United States, is the city’s bus and subway system, without which the city simply can’t function. The Times has a story today about just this question. It’s a fascinating discussion of the mix of questions, risks, challenges and opportunities that go into this question. But what struck me about the article is the general assumption in the writing of it that the issue is convincing residents to use the subways and public transit again rather than whether it’s actually safe to do so.

There’s so much we’ve learned over the last three months and so much we think we know that is actually just based on assumptions (even if they appear to be well-grounded) that it would be folly to assume it’s a fact that the subways can’t be used safely at scale. But everything we’ve learned over recent months seem to confirm what seemed like a strong assumption in March: that the subways and buses are prime vectors for the spread of the disease.

The issue isn’t so much surfaces, which all the rounds of cleaning can partly address, but enclosed spaces. The great bulk of information we’ve learned says that COVID can and does spread in enclosed in-door spaces with limited ventilation where there are significant numbers of people. The precise density, just how long particulars remain aloft in the air may be uncertain. But each of those factors are the definition of subway cars and buses during commuter rush hours and in cities like New York and for much of the rest of the day as well.

The answer for New York City and likely other comparable public transit based cities in the US is some version of all of the above: more work from home, more walking and cycling, more car commuting and finding ways to make public transport safe for the hopefully smaller number of people who choose or more likely have no choice but to use it. But I sense public authorities in New York City – and again, other cities in the US that are somewhat comparable – really don’t have any answer to this fundamental problem.

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