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New York's Subway Installs Vending Machines With Personal Protective Equipment

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In New York City, businesses are slowly reopening, and more people are riding the subways. Stephen Nessen of WNYC reports the agency that runs the transit system wants to make sure people have easy access to what they need for a safe ride.

STEPHEN NESSEN, BYLINE: The latest effort includes vending machines stocked with personal protective equipment at 10 of the busiest stations. Wearing a mask is required by law, so if commuters forget, they can buy surgical and cloth masks, as well as wipes and a four-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer from a company called Poo-Pourri.

LATRISHA JOHNSON: Yeah, I would if I didn't have any. Yes, I would buy from there.

NESSEN: Twenty-eight-year-old commuter Latrisha Johnson is a nurse assistant. She glances at the big, blue vending machine at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and says she knows masks are important and thinks the vending machines were a good move.

JOHNSON: Because not everybody that comes to the train station has, and it helps a lot with the protection.

NESSEN: The transit agency estimates that actually, 92% of riders do wear a mask when on the subway. So, like any item in demand, they can be found in vending machines. The Las Vegas airport has them. In Singapore, vending machines provide free masks. And even in New York, the station agents in the subway do have free surgical masks if riders ask for them. Still, it's not hard to find people who aren't wearing one at all, like 22-year-old Jahlio Davis from Brooklyn. As he walks through an underpass at Atlantic Terminal to catch a train, I ask him why he's not wearing one.

JAHLIO DAVIS: Because it's hot. I feel like I can't breathe. And at this point, if I was supposed to catch it I would have gotten it already.

NESSEN: Sarah Meyer is chief customer officer at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and says that's just a terrible excuse.

SARAH MEYER: What's more uncomfortable is coronavirus. So I hope that people will be wearing their masks. And we do have more and more signage going up at station entrances saying face coverings are required.

NESSEN: But there's no one enforcing the rule in the subway. In fact, NYPD officers who stand guard outside the station, a site of recent protests, are often seen not wearing masks themselves. Davis, who actually does wear a mask for his job as a security guard and says riding the subway makes him nervous, says so far, no one's even mentioned it to him.

DAVIS: Even if they do, I'm still getting on the train. I paid my $2.75 to get on.

NESSEN: And the MTA does need the money. In May, for the first time in recent history, it shut down service between 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. to disinfect train cars. It hired private cleaners. It's all costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the subway cars and stations are cleaner than they've been in recent decades, maybe ever, most experts say still, the most effective way to avoid catching the virus is to keep your hands clean and simply wear a mask.

For NPR News, I'm Stephen Nessen in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.