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The New York Subway Got Caught in the Coronavirus Culture War

A paper claims that the nation’s largest transit system made NYC a Covid-19 hot spot. But experts say there are too many unknowns to link ridership to infection rates.
A passenger in Brooklyn waits for a subway train. The transit system's role in the city's coronavirus infectious rate is now the subject of a political, but not scientific, debate.
A passenger in Brooklyn waits for a subway train. The transit system's role in the city's coronavirus infectious rate is now the subject of a political, but not scientific, debate.Holly Pickett/Bloomberg

On April 13, Jeffrey Harris, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a non-peer-reviewed study with a provocative title: “The Subways Seeded the Massive Coronavirus Epidemic in New York City.”

In the working paper now available at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Harris maps subway turnstile data against infection rate by zip code, and claims that the recent flattening of New York City’s epidemic curve is linked to the 65 percent decline in ridership that occurred in the first half of March. In an op-ed in the New York Daily News detailing the paper’s contents, he also points to the heavy death toll among MTA workers, which hit 79 on April 20, as another piece of evidence.