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To defend against coronavirus, MBTA steps up cleaning of crowded trains and stations

MBTA employees cleaned machines at the Government Center T station.
MBTA employees cleaned machines at the Government Center T station.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has begun to aggressively clean and disinfect transit stations and vehicles in response to the the global spread of the coronavirus, joining other transit agencies taking precautions to safeguard an area of daily life that is potentially among the most risky during an outbreak.

On Wednesday, the agency began a major push inside stations to disinfect anything people touch — such as hand rails, elevator buttons, and fare equipment — as frequently as every four hours.

“It was important for us to take this next step," MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said at a news briefing. “We are stepping up our level of disinfection." Every T vehicle, Poftak said, will be disinfected on a daily basis starting later this week.

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The T is not alone in boosting its cleaning initiatives. New York transit officials on Monday said they would begin a major effort to regularly use industrial-grade disinfectant on all its equipment every 72 hours after a commuter was confirmed to have the virus, according to The New York Times. In Washington State, where the coronavirus has killed ten people, officials said they would boost efforts to clean all surfaces bus riders come into contact with.

These cleaning initiatives are the most tangible response transit agencies can take to fight the spread of disease, said Polly Hanson, the senior director of security, risk, and emergency management for the American Public Transit Association.

“A transit agency might have done [cleaning] every week. Now they’re doing it every day,” Hanson said. “Those are localized decisions, but transit agencies are enhancing the cleaning of everything.”

But Hanson noted that many of the same concerns about the coronavirus are true of other diseases that spread this time of year, such as the flu. She said transit riders should avoid touching surfaces as much as they can and wash their hands after each trip, while agencies should regularly remind workers about proper hygiene.

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Public transit is a potentially risky location amid a viral outbreak because of the prospect of crowding and close contact with other riders, said Tom Russo, a doctor and expert in infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo.

“You’ve got a contained subway car, so if somebody is coughing and everybody is standing and holding on, you’re pretty close to somebody," Russo said. "Let’s say you’re going to a Celtics game. It’s probably not quite as bad. It’s not quite as confined or close quarters.”

That makes it all the more important that commuters who are sick stay home, and if they feel sick while in transit, they should take steps to protect other riders, such as coughing into their elbow.

Some industry watchers have posited that commuters will avoid public transit during the virus scare. For example, Doug Anmuth, an analyst with JP Morgan who follows ride-hailing companies, wrote in a research note that shares of Lyft could go up because “people would be more likely to use rideshare than a crowded bus or subway,” though Lyft may also be hurt by a decrease in overall travel, especially to airports.

In Massachusetts, there has been one confirmed case of coronavirus, from a Boston resident, and one presumptive case. Boston public health officials said the person with the confirmed case has not left his home since being diagnosed. The state’s public health department also said that residents who are under self-quarantine — currently, more than 250 people — should call health authorities before traveling if they feel ill.

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The T’s initiative to clean station surfaces every four hours began Wednesday, MBTA spokeswoman Lisa Battiston said, up from once a day. She added that the work does not require more workers beyond existing in-station staff and cleaning crews, “though staffing needs will continue to be reviewed with increases to staff where necessary.”

“This effort is not a deep-clean of the entirety of the station, but a targeted focus on high-contact areas including things like fare vending machines, push bars on doors, elevator buttons, and hand rails of stairways and escalators,” Battiston said.

Poftak cautioned that the cleaning schedule depends on getting enough commercial-grade disinfectant on hand. Right now, the agency has enough to clean every commuter rail car each day; he estimated that by the end of this week, the T will be able to disinfect subway cars, buses, and paratransit vehicles daily.

In addition to increased cleaning, the MBTA will be installing hand sanitizer dispensers in stations, and the agency will display information related to the coronavirus on messaging boards in stations and on trains, Poftak said.

Officials with the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan Airport, said at the news conference that they are also focusing on regular cleaning of traveler areas.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.