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Coronavirus Takes Deadly Toll On NYC’s Frontline Workers

March 27, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

Workers who make New York City go are falling prey to the ravages of COVID-19.

New York, N.Y.—In a week where the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York City multiplied to more than 33,000, three transit workers, a high-school principal, and a parking-meter collections assistant became the first city employees confirmed to have died from the lung-afflicting virus.

Peter Petrassi, 49, a subway conductor who had been working in an operations office in Long Island City, and Oliver Cyrus, 61, a bus driver at the Manhattanville Depot in West Harlem, died Mar. 26. Both had worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for 21 years. 

“We have lost a second union brother to the coronavirus,” Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano said in a message to members after Cyrus’s death. Local 100 Vice President Richard Davis described the Guyanese immigrant as “a quiet, humble man. He was well liked by all his co-workers. The workers at Manhattanville are all very upset. There’s a somber mood at the depot.”

The third, track worker Scott Elijah, died Mar. 29. He worked for the Combined Action/Emergency Response unit in Jamaica, Queens, and was pastor of the Bethany AME Church in Yonkers.

“This is just horrible news,” Local 100 Track Division Chairman Carlos Albert said. “He was a great man. A family man. A strong union brother.” 

Brooklyn alternative-high-school principal Dez-Ann Romain, 36, died on Mar. 23. An immigrant from Trinidad, she headed Brooklyn Democracy Academy in Brownsville, a transfer school for students who had had problems in traditional high schools.

“Words cannot express what the passing of Principal Dez-Ann Romain means to our city’s school leaders,” Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Mark Cannizzaro said in a message to members Mar. 26. “She represented the very best of our city and its public schools—an inspiring, compassionate professional who worked tirelessly to provide all children with opportunity. She saved lives.”

On Mar. 27, the city Department of Transportation announced that Irene Weiss, a community assistant in the parking-meter collections department, had died the day before at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in Queens. She had worked for the agency for 21 years.

“Ms. Weiss was a treasured employee and beloved colleague, known for her warmth, kindness and her true professionalism in helping to maintain the efficiency and integrity of the City’s meter collections operation,” the department wrote. “DOT joins all New Yorkers in wishing our sincerest condolences to the family of our colleague and friend, Irene Weiss, who served her City with such dedication.”

Their deaths came in a week where the number of reported coronavirus cases in the city more than tripled, from 10,764 on Sunday, March 22 to 33,474 as of 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, March 29, according to city Department of Health figures. Slightly more than half of them were under 50, and 56% were men. Almost 18,000 new cases were reported in the week’s last five days, with their number exceeding 4,000 on Mar. 25 and Mar. 28. 

There were 776 confirmed deaths as of Mar. 29, with more than 400 of them occurring in the previous two days. More than 70% of the dead were people 65 or older, and 61% were male. The toll among younger people was rising, with 39 adults under 45 and one person under 18 dying. As of 4:15 p.m. Mar. 29, 7,410 people had been hospitalized in the city.

The Department of Health could not provide figures for cases among city employees. MTA chair Patrick Foye told WINS Radio Mar. 23 that 30 workers had tested positive for COVID-19, and the Daily News reported Mar. 26 that the number had risen to 52.

The two transit workers’ deaths spotlighted the dispute over safety procedures between the TWU and the MTA. The MTA began rear-door boarding, in which passengers enter buses through the rear door and the section closest to the driver is cordoned off, on Mar. 23. 

But the authority has so far refused to provide bus drivers with masks to wear on the job. TWU Local 100 vice president JP Patafio filed a grievance against the MTA Mar. 23, contending that masks were essential personal protective equipment for drivers. The CITY news service reported that two Brooklyn depots had posted signs reading “We are not to give any bus drivers items that have to do with Corona Virus” and “Attn: Bus Operators… Facemasks are not to be issued to you.”

The MTA said there was a shortage of masks, and they were primarily reserved for workers exposed to chemicals and fumes. The CITY said it had obtained records showing that the two depots had more than 4,500 single-use N95 respirator masks in stock.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office did not respond to questions about the MTA’s safety precautions.

The 30 workers in Petrassi’s office, which dispatched train operators and conductors on the subway’s IND and BMT divisions, had all been instructed to quarantine themselves on Mar. 17 after a coworker tested positive for the virus the day before.

“Conductor Petrassi’s passing is a line-of-duty death just as if he had been killed on the job in any number of ways that have struck down transit workers in years past,” Utano said. “The MTA must NOW provide masks to frontline transit workers. Otherwise, the moment is rapidly approaching where bus and subway workers will do what is necessary to protect themselves and their families. Dedication and duty does not mean using transit workers as cannon fodder.”

March 27, 2020

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