US subways, airports rush to clean now, pay later amid coronavirus threat

A man wearing a protective mask is seen on the subway in New York City on March 10, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - New York disinfected more than 4,000 subway cars, 5,300 buses and roughly 2,500 commuter train cars last weekend. Every rail and subway station in the nation's largest mass-transit system was also sanitised.

"We're not cleaning any more, we're disinfecting our system," Mr Patrick Foye, chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) told reporters.

Similar scenes are playing out across the US as transportation hubs and companies ramp up cleaning to combat the spread of the coronavirus in systems that bring millions of people into close contact every day.

That has involved paying overtime and stocking up on cleaning supplies to protect against the spread of a microbe that can live on surfaces for an entire day.

Experts say such efforts, combined with passengers diligently washing their hands and observing other hygiene rules, can be effective weapons in the battle. But it is time-consuming and expensive, especially for transit systems that are facing budget deficits.

"The MTA and its agencies will incur a significant amount of costs in this endeavour," Mr Foye said. "We will be looking for federal help and expect the delegation to help," he added, referring to the members of Congress who represent New York.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has increased overtime pay and added temporary workers to support intensified sanitation that it began across its five terminals in February, an airport spokesman said.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has placed hand-sanitising stations throughout the airport, the largest in Washington State, where most of the US deaths linked to the virus are concentrated, as has Miami International Airport, according to their websites.

Boston's transit authority has also intensified sanitation work and is cleaning frequently touched surfaces in subway stations every four hours.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has invoked emergency procurement procedures to replenish hospital-grade disinfectant, wipes, masks and gloves.

"We are also mindful that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we are going to be strategic about deploying these resources based on medical guidance and risk to ensure that we have supplies when they're needed most," said Mr Ian Jannetta, a spokesman for the Washington, DC, system.

Ms Baye Larsen, a senior credit officer at Moody's who covers the MTA and New Jersey Transit said the virus would hit transit systems in two stages, first through higher spending on their sanitation efforts and then potentially through lower revenue if riders stay home.


"There is the higher use of cleaning supplies, overtime and salary costs, increase in employee education and customer engagement - all of these things have costs associated with them," she said.

Ms Larsen said that, historically, transit systems have been resilient to temporary shocks in ridership. Both the MTA and New Jersey Transit ridership was stunted after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. However, those events were accompanied by significant capital costs that a virus outbreak probably would not entail, Ms Larsen said.

"These systems are deeply essential for their regional economies," she continued. "We expect the states to recognise the essentiality of these transit systems and to continue with the political and financial support they have enjoyed."

Mr William Cox, senior managing director at the Kroll Bond Rating Agency, said the MTA is well-positioned to handle the effects from the virus thanks in part to a budget surplus expected for this year and a management team that has steered the agency toward a recovery after four years of falling ridership.

Virus-related ridership declines could also be offset by cutting expenses elsewhere, he said.

"Things would have to be much worse than currently at this state for there to be an immediately large impact on revenues," he said.


The task of limiting the virus' spread is monumental - and carries its own risk. The executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Mr Rick Cotton, tested positive for the coronavirus after visiting airports and other authority facilities. He is on home quarantine, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday (March 9).

Mr Cotton's staff at John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia, Newark Liberty International and Teterboro airports have been directed to clean restrooms more frequently as well as surfaces frequently touched by travellers, such as handrails, elevator buttons, door handles, ticket vending machines, water fountains, mobile device charging stations and other surfaces using disinfectants.

Air carriers, including Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, Alaska Air and Delta Air Lines, have been cleaning airplanes more frequently and more intensively because of the virus.

Delta's aircraft servicing international routes get an initial cleaning before the interiors are fogged with disinfectant rated by the federal government to combat communicable diseases. Southwest expanded use of hospital-grade disinfectant to clean its planes, which already receive six labour-hours of cleaning every night, the airline said.

Carriers have also touted the air filtration systems in their planes, with Southwest, United Airlines and Delta saying in blog posts that their fleets use potent high-efficiency particulate air filters similar those found in hospitals, which Delta said can filter out coronaviruses.

Ground crews for Alaska Airlines are now sanitising arm rests, seat belts, tray tables, overhead buttons and lavatory door handles on each flight that spends more than an hour on the ground, the company said in a blog post. Workers are wiping down seats, window shades and overhead bin handles on aircraft that are parked overnight.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA labour union has recommended additional actions, such as mounting hand sanitiser stations in passenger cabins and near lavatories, allowing flight attendants to wear gloves at any time instead during flight and changing aspects of passenger service, such as no longer offering hot towel service in first class.

"Aircraft cleaning is a part of this, but it's one part," said Ms Taylor Garland, spokesman for the union, which represents flight attendants from several airlines, including Alaska and United Airlines.

"There are a lot of other things that can be done in the course of operating a flight to combat this."

Combined with personal hand-washing and other recommendations for people, frequently sanitising transportation infrastructure with the proper disinfectants can be effective tools to combat the virus, said Mr Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

"It always comes down to really being able to prepare with regular cleaning and disinfecting of an area as well as personal responsibility," he said. "Any one of those things on their own is not effective."

Some travellers are getting the message.

Standing on a platform at the Metro Centre station in downtown Washington, Ms Brenda Mase, 63, says she may begin adjusting her daily commute from Frederick, Maryland, by riding in the first or last cars on the region's metro system, which are typically less crowded than those in the middle.

"I'm a soap-and-water person but because of my age I am concerned" about the virus, she said.

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