By Chris Robbins
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to kill thousands of Americans every day, the Trump administration announced that they will no longer reimburse cities and states for disinfecting transit systems and classrooms.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been reimbursing localities for pandemic-related cleaning since march, a new FEMA memo signedon September 1st states that as of September 15th, the operation of schools “and other public facilities” no longer qualify for reimbursement.
“An absurd change like this one—that actually takes money away from New York that’s now being used to clean the subways or prepare schools for classes—is a slap in the face to frontline workers, vulnerable seniors and kids,” Senator Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
“In the same week President Trump announced an illegal effort to cut Federal funding to New York City — the White House is trying to undermine efforts to fight COVID-19 in our subways, buses, and schools,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Thursday night.
We reached out to FEMA to ask whether the move was part of President Donald Trump’s directive to pull federal funding from “anarchist” jurisdictions, but have not yet received a response.
The MTA shut down overnight subway service in early May to accommodate a costly deep-cleaning schedule. MTA spokesperson Ken Lovett wrote in an email that the “MTA’s overall COVID-related expense estimate is up to $500M for 2020, $531M for 2021, $518M for 2022, and then $496M for 2023 and 2024.”
“It includes not only disinfecting, but masks and other protective gear, and temperature and other health screening actions for employees. This does not include most labor costs,” Lovett said.
So far, the MTA has submitted $160 million for reimbursement from FEMA. The pandemic has put the transit agency in an existential budget crisis. Without $12 billion in federal aid, the MTA said it may have to slash subway and bus service by 40 percent, commuter rail service by 50 percent, and begin a wave of layoffs and fare hikes.
Despite the FEMA memo, Lovett said that the MTA would continue the overnight cleaning.
“Our highest priority is the safety of our customers and employees and that includes the unprecedented disinfecting efforts that we will continue to undertake in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lovett said. “We have made it clear we need $12 billion from the federal government to get us through 2021 and this sudden and reckless White House action is another hit we — including our customers and employees — simply cannot afford.”
Medical experts are still unsure how effective the subway cleaning is at preventing the spread of COVID-19. “The story with coronavirus in terms of how long it lasts and whether you can get the disease from touching something that’s been contaminated has been an ongoing controversy that’s still not resolved,” Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative told Politico last month.
This past Wednesday, daily subway ridership stood at 1,485,640, a 73 percent decrease from the same time last year, while bus ridership has declined by 54 percent.
In New York City’s schools, the city’s $640 million budget for cleaning has remained unscathed.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is scheduled to meet with FEMA representatives today.
“We will fight this with everything we have, and we will continue to keep New Yorkers safe, especially in the face of continued recklessness from the White House,” de Blasio spokesperson Julia Arredondo said in an email.