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Subways to shut for nightly cleaning; contact tracer training ramps up 

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg remotely joins Gov. Andrew Cuomo's daily COVID-19 briefing on Thursday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg remotely joins Gov. Andrew Cuomo's daily COVID-19 briefing on Thursday.

New York City subways will be shutting down each night for disinfecting and cleaning starting May 6, and a plan to greatly ramp up contact tracing is beginning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday at his daily coronavirus briefing.

Cuomo said the subways will be closed from 1 to 5 a.m. each night for a complete cleaning and disinfecting of each car on all trains. The governor said ridership has plummeted because of the coronavirus-related shutdowns. But he said essential workers, including health care and grocery store workers, still need public transportation to get to work, and they need to be protected from further risk of infection.

Public transport workers have also been coming down with the virus at a higher-than-average rate.

“They’re on those trains. They deserve to be kept safe. They deserve to have a clean, safe ride to and from work, and they’re going to have it,” Cuomo said. “And we’re going to move heaven and earth to make sure that happens.”

The governor admitted that it’s a monumental undertaking, and predicted that “there will be bumps along the way.”

In addition to the mass cleaning, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will also coordinate buses and even Uber and Lyft and other for-hire car rides for each worker who needs one during those hours.

Long Island Railroad and Metro North cars will also be cleaned and disinfected daily, but it will not require a shutdown of those services, which run from New York City to its suburbs.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who joined the briefing virtually, said closing the subways will also end the growing problem of homeless people using subways as a place to sleep during the night, which increases their risk of infection.

He said police officers will work with advocates to encourage homeless people to go to shelters where they can receive other services as well.

“Because if you’re not going back and forth all night on a train, then you’re actually coming above ground, where outreach workers are there to help you,” de Blasio said. “Where NYPD officers trained in homeless outreach are there to support homeless people and get them to a better situation.”

Also appearing remotely at the briefing was de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who is financing and organizing a vast contact tracing effort that will provide 30 tracers for every 100,000 people.

Under the current rate of infections, 17,000 tracers could be needed to help isolate future outbreaks of the virus and to enable businesses and schools to reopen and remain open. Bloomberg said the training will be conducted through Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, and it will be rigorous.

“It will cover all the basic information of epidemics, contact tracing and privacy,” said Bloomberg, who said trainees will have to pass a test at the end of the program.

“We’re not going to put people out there who don’t know what they are doing,” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg said they are also developing cellphone apps to help tracers, though Cuomo said there are privacy issues with some app designs that can sense what other cellphones have been in close proximity to a user’s phone.

There are also plans to identify hotel rooms where a person infected with the virus can isolate for 14 days if they live in a crowded house or apartment.

Bloomberg said the program, once completed, will be made publicly available to help other states and nations who want to undertake a contact tracing program.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.