Close quarters send a shudder in flu season

MBTA riders are thinking twice before they touch potentially germ-covered poles on trains.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
MBTA riders are thinking twice before they touch potentially germ-covered poles on trains.

In the quiet between trains, the MBTA has begun making announcements this week remind­ing people that during flu season they should wash their hands frequently and cover their nose and mouth when they sneeze or cough.

If you already happen to know these things, the public health campaign, which began amid an early and heavy flu season, is mostly a reminder that you are about to enter a ­tiny space with a bunch of strangers during an epic flu season.

“If you have it on your mind, it’s kind of amazing to see how casually some people take it,” April Smith, who writes regularly on Facebook about the daily comedy of the Orange Line, said in a phone interview.


“Then you’ll see someone,’’ Smith said. “They’re making that sneeze face, and it’s like watching a bomb go off. Events that take half a second are spread over minutes. You watch it go off, and there’s nothing to do about it.”

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With a public health emergency stoking fears, people all over the city are swimming in Purell hand sanitizer and flocking for flu shots and thinking twice before shaking hands. (Fist bumps have taken on new popularity in some quarters.) But there may be no place like the T, with its churn of humanity and multitude of hands touching surfaces, where a simple sneeze has the power to bring a special kind of dread.

“You feel that damp puff of air on your face,” said Smith, a Jamaica Plain resident who works in the Seaport District and spends a good bit of her day confined on the T within the blast zone of strangers. “Yesterday, I had someone sneezing on one side and coughing on the other, and I made eye contact with the girl across from me, and she just smiled. We’ve all been there.”

Smith invoked what is for many a golden rule of riding on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority trains: Don’t touch the straps or metal poles. Even in ordinary times, they feel clammy and greasy, with a slight hint of sweat.

Now, it’s hard to even look at them without a hard swallow and a thought about the microscopic things that might dwell there.


Jamiah Tappin, a community organizer in Dorchester, was waiting for the Red Line at Central Square, with one glove on. She had no plan to touch the poles directly when she got on the train. “It’s just pretty greasy,” she said. “That’s mostly what it is. Greasy.”

She said she wasn’t the sort to worry about getting sick. But the subway poles were still not getting touched.

At the other end of the platform, Monica Ball, 23, who lives in the Fenway, said she has been following flu news via social media. Off the top of her head, she was able to quote the figures announced by public health officials: 700 confirmed cases in Boston so far, up from just 70 last year.

“I’m a bit of a nut with the antibacterial hand sanitizer,” she said, adding she would definitely be using some after touching the subway poles on Thursday. “It’s probably the dirtiest thing on the subway, but yet I have to touch it.”

Actually, pretty much­ ­everyone seemed resigned Thursday to the fact that they would have to touch the poles, even people with the most visceral reactions and most vehement pledges not to grab hold.


The chances of getting flu from a surface is lower than from a cough or a sneeze, but the MBTA is still promising to step up its cleaning regimen, especially of the 32 straps and poles in a typical subway car, during the flu outbreak, which Mayor Thomas M. Menino declared an emergency Wednesday.

The Archdiocese of ­Boston, for the first time since the swine flu outbreak in 2009, permitted priests to suspend sharing wine from a chalice, as well as the shaking of hands during the “Sign of Peace.” Instead, parishioners will bow to each other.

Plenty of people chose simply not to think about it Thursday, cheerfully riding up escalators among sniffling and sneezing crowds or ­applying bare hands to endlessly revolving doors, seemingly without worry. At the Prudential Center, crowds crammed into elevators to ride to the top for a view. But they were tourists. Maybe they hadn’t heard.

But for Smith, the Orange Line commentator, it’s hard not to see germs everywhere once you start looking. “It’s like on ‘CSI,’ when they spray the stuff and then turn on the black light,” she said.

Billy Baker can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@billy_baker.