Just like his father, subway conductor Mel Reed shuttles New Yorkers every morning from platform to platform.
The 15-year veteran of the MTA New York City Transit (NYCT) system has always considered the city's subway service as essential. It's never been more true than throughout the pandemic. On any given day, he sees hospital employees, grocery store clerks, and other frontline workers going to their jobs, and he and his co-workers are a vital part of that.
"We're out here to let them know that although things are really bad with COVID, there are actually heroes that they actually can count on to get them where they need to be," Reed said. "Because people have to travel. People have to go to work."
Over at the Corona Maintenance Yard in Flushing, Queens, NYCT inspector Bob Freda takes a closer look at the cars. He's been checking the motors, the power supplies, the doors, and the sidings for over a decade to make sure everything runs smoothly.
"It's my job," Freda explained. "I want to keep the city moving. I'm as safe as I can be. I try to do a good job. The city needs to move. It can't stop."
During the pandemic, New York City's subway ridership has plummeted more than 70 percent as people began and continued to work from home. Its legendary 24-hour subway service now has shutdown hours — though from February 22 it will be truncated to just between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Officials in August of last year projected the system could face a $16.2 billion deficit through 2024 because of the lack of rider revenue.
That doesn't mean people have stopped relying on public transportation. During the previous extended 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. subway closures, about 20,000 New Yorkers used buses to get to their jobs, officials said.
"It's all about moving people safely and as fast as we possibly can, but the motivation really is today we're moving people who are helping people get better," Reed explained. "So I'll definitely show up for that."
Reed and Freda, along with their colleagues, continue to work in spite of increased risks. Though both men said their co-workers are very respectful of social distancing and mask-wearing and things are cleaned often, at least 136 MTA workers have died due to COVID-19 ending in January. However, an NYU pilot study in October found that at least 24 percent of MTA workers may have contracted the disease, and nine out of 10 fear getting sick at their jobs.
Reed himself got COVID-19 last April. He said the scariest part for him and his daughters was when he experienced shortness of breath. He's since recovered and is motivated to continue working in honor of those who have passed away.
"When I first told them I had COVID, we were all crying on the phone," he recalled. "They thought they were going to lose their dad. They're really happy that I really got over it. But they're still wary of my job."
Freda knows work colleagues who have contracted COVID-19 as well, though thankfully they have recovered. Still, his son and daughter were concerned about him working at this time. He assured them the subway cars are sanitized, and it's not too bad wearing a mask all day, which was required when working under dusty trains before anyway. Plus, he trusts the system: Freda rides the Long Island Rail Road and the subway to work every day.
"What I miss most is lunch and breaks where everybody could hang out at the table and talk about what we were doing at work," he admitted. "But, now we're separated, and we have to stay separated. We have to stay safe."
It's important that the city can retain some sense of normalcy because it's the only we can get back to our lives before the pandemic, Freda pointed out. Both Freda and Reed said they are committed to making sure New Yorkers can count on the subways.
"Some folks call us heroes," Reed added. "To me, heroes stand for how everyone reacts, how everyone remembers others. That keeps me going."