Every morning, Marcus Johnson tightens up as soon as he heads out from his South End home for his job as a custodian at Boston College. Dressed in mask and gloves, he feels the anxiety build as he gets to the Hynes Convention Center Green Line station around 5:20 a.m.
It’s always been quiet at this hour, but never more so than now, as the global pandemic shutdown has left Johnson as one of the few people still venturing out on public transit to go to work. Before, the commute for Johnson and his fellow early-morning riders was a kind of unspoken and mundane collective misery; now, what’s left unsaid is the suspicion that the next rider over is a threat carrying an unseen adversary.
“As soon as I get to the Green Line, my heart starts racing,” Johnson said. “You can just see the concern in people’s faces. Every time you sit on that train, you take a risk.”
The buses and trains may be near empty, but there are still thousands of workers who have little choice but to risk a T ride every day, nurses and janitors and food service workers whose jobs are as essential as ever, and desperate shoppers with no other way to get around. They’re the last commuters in a bestilled economy, voyaging each day into a scary unknown. It is the very promise of public transit — to move many people on one vehicle — that poses what may be their greatest threat.
Each weekday morning after she boards the 111 bus, Leslie Santiago observes a new ritual as it picks up more riders on its way through Chelsea and into Boston: a constant shifting of seats to maintain six feet of separation in a vehicle designed for confined quarters, and a studied effort to avoid grabbing poles and any other hard surface as the bus lurches into traffic, out of fear they could be teeming with the virus.
“If I touch this, am I going to get it? Is that person in front of me going to get it?” said Santiago, a paralegal at a Boston law firm that specializes in immigration and still requires her to go to work.
Given the viral power of COVID-19, the eerie emptiness of a T vehicle is a reassurance, that most commuters have stayed home, and those still riding are following social distance guidelines. A month ago, the thought of masked riders boarding a bus would be fearsome; these days, it’s those without the mask who are scary.
“Under my breath, I’m saying, ‘Well I’m protecting you from myself. Thanks for not doing the same for me,’ ” said Paul Burgart, a 68-year-old medical worker at Brigham & Women’s Hospital who rides the 39 bus from his home in Jamaica Plain.
Johnson, the BC janitor, continues to report to a campus that has shifted to online learning but is still housing about 300 students, many of whom cannot return to their overseas homes because of travel restrictions.
Traveling outbound in early morning, Johnson always avoided the claustrophobic crowds of rush hour. Still, in normal times, there would usually be 25 or so riders on a car with him. These days, it’s just a handful.
“There were only two people on the train,” Johnson recalled of that first commute after the city essentially shut down. “They looked at me. I looked at them. We just kept staring at each other, wondering, ‘What are we doing here? Why are we on this train?’ ”
With so few passengers loading and unloading, trolleys breeze through stops; the trip is faster some days by as much as 10 minutes, Johnson said. Yet somehow, it feels longer.
On his mind, always, is the virus.
It has upended Johnson’s life in several ways. There’s the stress of cleaning a campus mostly,— but not entirely — empty of students as an infectious disease continues to spread.
A Black man over 50 with a heart condition, Johnson said he is “a flying target for this disease.”
There’s also loneliness and sadness, as he is deprived of his Friday night tradition of taking his five grandchildren out for ice cream: “It’s my joy.”
But nothing worries him quite as much as the commute, where he simply can’t know whether the virus has boarded the train, too.
The not-knowing has become so stressful that Johnson is planning to walk the five miles to work, even though it will add more than two hours to his round-trip commute each day.
“I’ll feel safer, I’ll feel better,” he said. “I don’t want to get sick.”
In some ways, the numbers alone indicate who is still riding the MBTA. These days, “rush hour” is a relative term; the busiest hours across the system have shifted earlier, roughly aligning with typical hospital shift times and indicating that medical workers still rely on public transit.
Another big shift is that MBTA buses now have twice as many riders as the subway; normally the subway is king. That may be because they carry a higher rate of low-income and minority riders who depend on transit as their only way to get around and are more likely to work in service positions, and are still required to show up for work.
It is also these populations that are being hit hardest by coronavirus.
“It tells you that there is a significant population who depend on the bus for transportation while most of society is staying at home,” said MBTA general manager Steve Poftak.
Some passengers and advocates worry about crowded conditions, especially with the MBTA reducing the number of buses and subways to Saturday levels on most routes. Mela Miles, director of the T Riders Union, said some passengers who still have to go into work feel as if they have to choose between a crowded bus or waiting and being late for work.
That decision, she said, has never been so “of life or livelihood, of food or homelessness.”
Poftak said the T is still adjusting schedules to balance service and crowds; bus ridership overall is down by nearly 80 percent, compared to more than 90 percent on the subway, but it differs significantly from route to route. There’s also a major barrier to getting more buses in service: More than 40 T drivers have been infected with the virus, and others are in quarantine.
Santiago said she is one of 15 or 20 riders to board the 111 bus each afternoon at Haymarket station as she returns home.
Under a new safety measure instituted by the MBTA, riders now board through the back of the bus, which limits interactions with drivers. The side effect, however, is that it sometimes causes riders to cluster in the middle of the bus after they board, she said.
Santiago moves quickly to claim a seat in the back row of the bus, where she can hole up in something approaching isolation and keep all the other riders in view. But it’s hard to commiserate with fellow riders, Santiago said, when no one can see your smile behind a mask. It’s even harder to feel much camaraderie when everybody is a potential biological threat.
“You don’t know if they’re sick or if they need to get tested. They still need to ride the bus,” she said. “Even if you just hear a person cough or clear their throat, it’s kind of scary.”
That bus ride is a threat not just to Santiago. The 40-year-old lives with her elderly mother who is on dialysis, in Chelsea, a dense, immigrant-heavy city that is already reeling from an explosion of coronavirus cases.
“I’m so worried about my mom,” she said. “The more people [in Chelsea] show up sick, the more I get worried. I hope she’s not sick. I hope she’s not sick,” she repeats, as if in fervent prayer.
When she gets home, Santiago takes her shoes off outside and immediately disinfects them using spray that she keeps by the door, having read an article that said the virus may live on shoes for several days. She hops in the shower before saying hello to anybody. Another commute awaits tomorrow.