NYC Subway’s Virus Killers Unleash Mops, Mist on 6,000 Cars a Night

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(Bloomberg) -- Editor’s Note: No city is more important to America’s economy than New York, and none has been hit harder by the coronavirus. “NYC Reopens” examines life in the capital of capitalism as the city takes its first halting steps toward a new normal.

The train grinds to a halt shortly before 1 a.m. At the far end of the platform at the 96th Street and Second Avenue station — the end of the Q line — Erling Galan logs the arrival time on his iPad.

The 20-year-old waits awhile before signaling his team to move in. Passengers have to leave the station first. And police officers need to usher away any homeless people who linger on the train. That always takes a minute. Sometimes a few.

NYC Subway’s Virus Killers Unleash Mops, Mist on 6,000 Cars a Night

After all large pieces of trash have been swept away, Alejandro Valencia enters the first car, wiping down seats and railings with brightly colored cloths drenched in a fluid made to eradicate every virus, from hepatitis to HIV and SARS-CoV-2 — the coronavirus. Next comes David Peralta, spraying an electrically charged, bacterial-killing mist that clings to surfaces. Roman Ortiz, equipped with a floor mop, rounds out the crew.

Down the platform, their colleagues are going through the same regimen. It’s tedious work. But if they move quickly, the train’s 10 cars could be cleaned in minutes. The next train won’t arrive for another 20. And the subway just closed for the night.

“My mom used to clean in the train stations,” says Galan, who emigrated from Ecuador about 11 years ago. “Then she got me into the job.” 

Every night for the past month, crews like Galan’s shoulder the Herculean task of making sure each and every one of the subway system’s more than 6,000 train cars is cleaned and disinfected in time for the morning commute. Although ridership on the system’s more than two dozen routes and shuttle services is still down roughly 80% from pre-Covid levels, the subway remains the lifeblood of the city.

NYC Subway’s Virus Killers Unleash Mops, Mist on 6,000 Cars a Night

For many of New York’s easily forgotten and largely overlooked essential workers with less-than-glamorous but important jobs — like stocking shelves in grocery stores or serving as doormen and security guards — it’s the only way to get to work. The truth is, even during the height of the pandemic, as hundreds of New Yorkers died each day and ridership plunged, people still took several hundred thousand trips daily between the system’s 424 stations.

Now, as New York heads toward its second stage of reopening, which will include office buildings, in-store shopping and outdoor dining, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is faced with assuring an army of white-collar workers that it’s safe.

We’re tracking everything you need to know as New York reopens after the Covid-19 shutdown. Read our explainer and sign up for alerts sent directly to your inbox.

For the past month, the agency has been shutting down the system between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. each day — the first disruption in history to its round-the-clock service. At that time, police officers and social workers help homeless riders, who for years have found nightly refuge on trains, move into shelters instead. And roughly 3,000 MTA staff and contractors descend on the stations, thoroughly scrubbing both them and the subway cars.

So far, according to Patrick Warren, the MTA’s chief safety and security officer, it’s working as planned. More than half of the homeless population that they’ve helped have stayed in the shelters. And trains and stations, long associated by New Yorkers with rats and the smell of urine, have never been cleaner — thanks to the workers.

“They feel like they’re part of something big in New York City,” says Warren, an Army veteran and West Point graduate.

He points to Peralta, who resembles a cast member from “Ghostbusters” as he carries the electrostatic sprayer on his back. The machine, Warren explains, electrically charges the disinfectant before it leaves the nozzle as a mist. That effectively turns the mist into a magnet, which makes it spread evenly across surfaces.

NYC Subway’s Virus Killers Unleash Mops, Mist on 6,000 Cars a Night

Peralta, 20, shrugs when asked if it’s heavy. Fully loaded with 10 liters of disinfectant, it weighs at least 50 pounds and is capable of cleaning three trains before a refill.

He and the others no longer wear the full-body suits that cleaning crews donned during the height of the pandemic — just masks, gloves and safety glasses. With heat spewing from the air conditioners atop idle trains, coveralls would have been unbearable.

Valencia, 35, moves swiftly between the cars. He has three different microfiber cloths: one yellow one to wipe down the seats, a red for all metal handles, a blue for the driver’s cabin. Like the others in the dozen-strong team overseen by Galan, he’s Hispanic, part of the mass of workers hailing from outside the U.S. who do the jobs that ensure the city can function.

NYC Subway’s Virus Killers Unleash Mops, Mist on 6,000 Cars a Night

He studied journalism and architecture at university and worked as a radio producer in Colombia, his home country, before emigrating five years ago.

“But you know, for this situation — for the Covid — I need money, man,” he says.

When he and the others are done, Galan again notes the time and logs it in the MTA app that tracks cleaning. Each station is scrubbed twice a day, and trains are cleaned periodically throughout the day, on top of the nightly scrub-downs.

Minutes later, the train departs, and a new one arrives. Even during the four-hour nightly shutdown, the trains continue running to shuttle MTA staff around.

When their shift wraps up at 5 a.m., Valencia and the others begin their journeys back to their homes in Queens.

Most of them go by train.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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