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Deep Cleaning, Disinfectant And 'Death Stares': LA Public Transit In The Age Of Coronavirus

(James Bernal for LAist)
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Coronavirus concern is everywhere. We're stocking up on hand sanitizer, toilet paper and guns. We're Googling it at a wild rate. Cancel culture has a whole new meaning.

As people navigate the COVID-19 landscape, there have been questions about the safety of taking public transportation.

The messaging in some parts of the country has been ... mixed. In New York City, for example, officials assured the public that the subway was safe -- but also to avoid them if they could.

So what about Los Angeles? Here's a quick guide to public transit in the time of coronavirus.

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(James Bernal for LAist)


Studies in recent years show there is a link between public transit use and the spread of disease. That shouldn't be too much of a shock -- people sharing enclosed spaces like buses and trains ups the risk just like spending time in airplanes and elevators.

A 2018 study examined New York City's public transit and modeled a scenario of pandemic-level influenza, similar to one that started in 1957. Researchers found that just 4% of transmissions would occur via the subway, suggesting that "interventions targeted at subway riders would be relatively ineffective in containing the epidemic," according to the study authors.

It's definitely worth noting that NYC's public transit system carries waaaaay more riders than the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- as in nearly 1.3 billion more trips a year, according to 2018 data.

So are you at increased risk of getting coronavirus on public transit in L.A.? That largely depends on the behavior of people who may be infected-- and the response from transit agencies.

L.A. Metro spokesman Dave Sotero noted that, to date, there have been no reported incidences of coronavirus on the system and no known links between public transit and the spread of the disease in the county.

The agency is taking several steps "to ensure that our system remains as safe and clean as possible," he told LAist this week.


L.A. Metro has formed a Contagious Virus Response Task Force, according to a recent press release, and are in regular communication with the county health department and CDC.

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The system is operating as usual at the moment, though Sotero said the agency will follow the guidance of public health officials "should there be any instances of the virus on the transit system." The task force is updating L.A. Metro CEO Phillip Washington on a daily basis, Sotero said.

The agency has also "strengthened cleaning at major transit hubs," officials said. Metro's custodial staff is focusing attention on "high touch point areas," Sotero explained, including doors, handrails along stairs and escalators, and TAP vending machines. Two shifts of custodian crews are cleaning "on an ongoing basis," he said.

L.A. Metro officials say employees are continuing to clean and disinfect all its buses and trains once a day, which happens overnight at their respective divisions. (Courtesy Los Angeles Metro)

Those "major transit hubs" include Union Station,the 7th Street / Metro Center station, and the El Monte station, though agency officials did not provided a full list of where the ramped up cleaning efforts are happening.

Sotero said Metro staff continue to clean and disinfect all its buses and trains once a day, which happens overnight at their respective yards.

"We're picking up trash, we're sweeping or mopping, we're cleaning the panels and we're using disinfectants to wipe down surfaces," Sotero said, adding that each station continues to be power washed weekly using high pressure, high temperature water.

Metro officials "will be reviewing our cleaning protocols to ensure they're adequate," Sotero said, and the agency will "be responsive to what the need is" should it receive new recommendations from public health officials.

Metro has launched an internal educational campaign for its roughly 11,000 employees to help them understand and prevent the potential spread of COVID-19. Employees working in public are now being asked to wear gloves, Sotero said.

The agency is also in the process of producing a public-facing campaign to keep riders informed, including printed pamphlets and new signage on the system, Sotero said.

What about the potential impacts to ridership? Metro's ridership data shows overall trips dipped in January from the previous year, but Metro buses gained more than 700,000 riders compared to Jan. 2019 (rail ridership fell by more than 800,000 boardings in that same timeframe). Ridership was actually up in February compared to the same month in 2019 -- though the leap year plays a big role there (the final tally for this month will be available in mid-April).


(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

L.A. County public health officials offered these tips for how to protect yourself and others while taking public transit:

If you're sick, stay home. That's the single best protection against coronavirus -- and any other infectious disease, according to Barbara Ferrer, director of L.A County Public Health.

"[L.A. Metro] can do all the cleaning in the world, but if sick people continue to come out, use public transit, cough on other people, sit closely to other people, stand closely to other people, they'll just continue to [spread infections]," she said. "Not just the possible spread for COVID-19 but the spread of influenza and other kinds of infectious diseases that are in our midst."

Whenever possible, leave about six feet of space between you and anyone with a cough or fever. That presents some obvious challenges on public transit, so, if possible, take less crowded buses and trains. That may mean leaving earlier or later for work -- which isn't a possibility for some who rely on the system to get to their jobs on time.

Keep your hands clean. Use sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol) after touching common surfaces like handrails, turnstiles, handles and poles.

Do less with your hands. Use your hip or back of your hand when passing through turnstiles and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.

Health officials have advised that masks should be worn by people already sick, those caring for the sick or else only when recommended by medical professionals.

Cal State Northridge student Kenny Uong is a frequent Metro rider who takes the system to the San Fernando Valley campus from his home in Glendale. He's made it a new habit to wash his hands -- or use sanitizing wipes if there isn't a restroom nearby -- as soon as he gets off a train or bus.

"I've noticed that more passengers are wearing face masks and using hand sanitizer," Uong told me this week. "Allergy season coinciding with the coronavirus spread is unfortunate because as soon as one person coughs or sniffles because of a stuffy nose or cold, other passengers start giving them death stares."


The city of L.A.'s Department of Transportation "is coordinating its actions based on recommendations of local health agencies," according to spokesman Colin Sweeney.

The city-run bus service recently increased cleaning from every 48 hours to once a day, Sweeney said. Cleaning crews are using Zep Spirit II, a hospital-grade disinfectant.

Foothill Transit is continuing to clean and disinfect its buses daily, according to agency officials.

For more information on L.A. County's coronavirus response, visit the public health department's website.



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Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Kenny Uong's name. LAist regrets the error.

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