If you need to ride transit during the pandemic, do it. If you don’t, avoid it.

Having lots of people ride on crowded trains is bad idea if we're going to slow coronavirus transmission. Photo: John Greenfield
Having lots of people ride on crowded trains is bad idea if we're going to slow coronavirus transmission. Photo: John Greenfield

As the coronavirus pandemic deepens, I’d like to give a shout-out to all the healthcare professionals, first responders, transit workers, grocery store employees, and other people doing essential jobs to keep society running. And, while I support Governor J.B. Pritzker’s decision to temporarily ban dining and drinking in restaurants, bars, and cafes to slow transmission, my thoughts are with the countless service industry workers and business owners who will be suffering a major financial blow.

It’s going to be crucial for the local and federal governments to support them with a bailout. You can also help out restaurants, shops, and performing artists by going online to buy gift certificates to use later, products, and merchandise. And it sure would be nice if some of these people donated a large chunk of change to set up a relief fund for laid-off workers.

But if you’ve been keeping up with news of the pandemic, you understand why it’s crucial for us to avoid unnecessarily hanging out in public space. (If you’re not up to speed, read this now.) On the bright side, those of us who are relatively young and healthy are unlikely to get seriously ill or die from the disease. But the importance of “flattening the curve,” preventing the number of infections from getting so high at any one that it overwhelms the healthcare system, as is currently the case in countries like Italy, isn’t about us younger-and-unafraid types. It’s about about reducing the potential for large-scale deaths of vulnerable residents, such as the elderly, those with immunodeficiencies, and homeless people.

Image: CDC via Vox

That’s why it’s so important for us to get serious about taking precautions to avoid catching or spreading the disease. Even if you feel completely healthy, you could be a carrier who could pass the virus on to others. The disease is spread by “respiratory droplets” produced by coughing or sneezing, and you can pick it up from touching contaminated surfaces and infecting yourself by touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. By now you probably know the importance of proper and frequent hand-washing, avoiding touching your face, and staying home if you don’t feel well.

But just being around other people, particularly in enclosed spaces, greatly increases the chances of transmission, which is why the bans on large events and dining and drinking out are necessary. Moreover, we need to generally stay away from people we don’t live with as much as possible. Work from home if you can, and if you’re a boss, allow your employees to do so if at all possible. Avoid going to retail establishments except to buy groceries, medicine, and other necessary supplies. Even visits with close family members and friends in other households should be limited, or better yet eliminated, for now. That may sound extreme, but if we don’t do everything we can now to slow the spread right now, we’re going to regret it in a few days when the number of deaths in Chicago and Illinois is growing exponentially.

All this seclusion may sound like a drag, and it may be necessary to manage stress and anxiety during this time. On the other hand, those of us who able to do this type of self-quarantine comfortably should count are blessings. There are lots of productive and pleasant things you might be able do around the house during this time, like completing your taxes, organizing your home, reading a good book, practicing a musical instrument, or soaking in a hot bath. And don’t forget that it’s totally OK and necessary to spend time outside, provided you try to keep a safe distance, at least six feet, from strangers. Going for a walk or a bike ride is a great idea (we’ve been seeing a biking boom in Chicago this month), and here’s a whole list of other relatively safe outdoor activities to help keep you from getting cabin fever during this time.

Getting stir crazy during your self-seclusion? Go check out a beautiful outdoor space like Auburn Park near 79th and Vincennes. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
Getting stir crazy during your self-seclusion? Go check out a beautiful outdoor space like Auburn Park near 79th and Vincennes. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Someone asked me today whether I’d recommend riding transit during the pandemic. CTA and Metra says they’re doing everything they can to minimize the risk of transmission for passengers and workers through thorough and regular sanitizing of their rolling stock and facilities. Still, having lots of people traveling on crowded trains and buses would not helpful for reducing the spread of the disease. (Uber and Lyft probably aren’t much safer, since you’re traveling in an enclosed space with one or more strangers, and you don’t know how recently the vehicle has been wiped down.)

However, if you have no practical option except to ride transit to work, medical appointments, the grocery or drug store, or other essential destinations, should should feel no guilt about it. You can reduce your risk of exposure by wearing gloves, which will make it less likely you’ll touch a dirty surface and then your face, and trying to sit at least six feet from others. Fortunately, with so many people not commuting to work at this time, the vehicles are much less crowded than usual.

But if you don’t have to ride transit, you should avoid it. That will reduce the spread of the disease, and the risk to people who have no choice but to ride public transportation right now. Walk and bike to get around if possible, and drive a private car if you need to. Even if some transit trips are replaced by car journeys, there’s likely to be a net decrease in crashes and pollution thanks to the overall drop in traffic while so many people are staying home.

Of course, so many people avoiding transit is not going to be good for the CTA, Metra, and Pace bottom lines, and officials should take steps to mitigate that, ideally diverting money from car-oriented projects to transit. But it would be a lot easier to deal with the aftermath of a drop in fare box revenue, rather than a total shutdown of the system in the event of an Italy-style lockdown, let alone the tragedy of thousands of needless deaths.  So if you don’t absolutely need to use public transportation during the pandemic, do the right thing and avoid it, which will make conditions safer for those who have no other option.

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