CTA Red Line COVID-19
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As More Commuters Return To Work, Here’s What It Looks Like On The Red Line

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
CTA Red Line COVID-19
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As More Commuters Return To Work, Here’s What It Looks Like On The Red Line

Soliciting and gambling aren’t the only focus of the CTA’s announcements these days. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Chicago’s ‘L’ train system has updated many of its protocols to encourage proper hygiene and social distancing.

There are new sanitation regimens, which include daily as well as regular deep cleanings using new electrostatic sprayers and an antimicrobial surface coating designed to prevent viruses from sticking to surfaces.

The CTA also established a passenger capacity limit of 22 riders per train car — although it’s up to riders to enforce this limit — and said it runs longer trains on some routes to provide more space for social distancing. CTA employees also monitor platforms at high-ridership stations via camera, and make announcements asking customers to spread out when they’re too close or to wait for the next train when the one at the station is too crowded.

While the CTA reports ridership is down 75% compared to this time last year, systemwide, more people are starting to take the train or bus for work and essential trips now that Chicago is in Phase 4 of reopening.

On a hot day last week, WBEZ spent a day on the Red Line to talk with riders and see how the new protocols work in practice. Some cars were eerily empty; others were near the passenger capacity limit. Here’s how some people are navigating public transit during the pandemic.

Delaney Hoskins

Delaney Hoskins

Why are you taking the train? To get to work downtown

How often have you ridden since the onset of the pandemic? Every day starting in early May

“I’m actually immunocompromised, and I was taking Ubers to work for a little while. But I live in Avondale, and to Uber to and from Avondale for work 5 days a week is $600 a month for me. And that’s not including surges. So I wasn’t really able to afford that, so I’m getting on the train. It is what it is.

I usually see people who are nurses and doctors getting on board. I work around a lot of hospitals, so that’s pretty common. I usually see a lot of construction workers going on, or people getting off of night shifts. It’s usually the people who are holding the city together.”

Nelson Vazquez

Nelson Vazquez

Why are you taking the train? Headed to a construction job

How often have you ridden since the onset of the pandemic? Every day starting in mid-June

“Before we get on the trains, at some locations [CTA workers] would come in and wipe them down, spray and sweep, sanitize the chairs and handlebars. And that’s what I like.

We’ll get on and it smells fresh and we’re off. I [also] like that they’re doing the [social distancing] stickers. Some people follow it, some people don’t. It’s not like they’re directly on our backs.

It’s kind of difficult to have to wear a mask, especially for people who are working and have to wear a mask all day. It’s already hard to breathe. The majority of people are wearing masks, but some people don’t. I don’t judge. Right now I had [a mask] on but couldn’t breathe, so I took it off for a while.”

Waiting at Belmont station
Sticker decals, spaced 6 feet apart, serve as social distancing guides for riders on the Belmont station platform. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
CTA social distancing decals
Sticker decals advise riders to stand six feet apart on the train platform. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
CTA rail operator
A CTA rail operator wearing gloves and a mask departs the Cermak/Chinatown station on Wednesday, July 1. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Lisa Sargent

Lisa Sargent

Why are you taking the train? To visit family

How often have you ridden since the onset of the pandemic? Once a week

“You would think the trains aren’t as crowded or as busy. No. … When the buses were free, for those months, oh those buses were crowded. And I’ll tell you this much, too. At 9 in the evening this train was crowded. I found out when I left my cousin’s house to go to the South Side — it was from the North Side to the South Side. These trains were crowded. I mean, they’re crowded. They had more passengers than you would think at night than during the day. It was very surprising to me.”

Aaron Hale and Sandy Phillips

Aaron Hale and Sandy Phillips

Why are you taking the train? To visit Wrigley Field

How often have you ridden since the onset of the pandemic? First time riding since arriving in Chicago from Chattanooga, Tenn.

Aaron: “We’re actually trying to get to Wrigley Field now. We’re staying just up from here downtown and just getting out doing some sightseeing.”

Sandy: “We’re here for a couple of days. I feel like it’s been pretty good so far. … We’ve traveled, we’ve been on a trip this month also, so we felt pretty safe about it.”

Aaron: “We just try to stay as clear from people as we can, wear the masks and wash our hands a lot. All the basic stuff. So we’re trying to live it up as much as we can but not be dangerous about it and just use common sense.”

CTA worker cleaning
At the 95th Red Line station, a CTA employee cleans surfaces with disinfectant before the train heads north on Wednesday, July 1. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Wilson Red Line Station
Riders await the train on the Wilson station platform in the Uptown neighborhood on Thursday, July 2. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Liam Hickey
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Liam Hickey

Why are you taking the train? To do computer installations at a customer site

How often have you ridden since the onset of the pandemic? Never, until yesterday.

“I used to be a daily rider. Our company converted to working remotely for most of us that can, so I have not touched public transportation until yesterday when I was on this project to do computer installations on-site. … There were about six people on the entire car during rush hour. And yesterday while coming back, one person sat behind me so I moved to another seat 5-6 feet away.

I suppose now since there are so few people on it, and with the regular cleanings, I’m rather comfortable. … I guess after a few months of anything, people tend to settle into a new routine. … But for the first couple of months, I really preferred to avoid it. I also avoided the buses for the same reason.

Our office is going to an optional one-day-a-week attendance in the office. I’m going to prefer to stay at home. I think my mother is a germaphobe, so I was raised with that attitude. So given the choice to avoid it, I’ll avoid it. But there are some times when you need to be at the office or at a customer site to do the work, so that’s why I’m going in.”

Phillip Kindred

Phillip Kindred

Why are you taking the train? To meet my wife at Union Station

How often have you ridden since the onset of the pandemic? Once in a while for outings with my kids

“We come downtown and enjoy the scenery. It’s more peaceful [on the train] because there are less people on it. [The kids] love it. It gives them a chance to get out.”

Do Not Enter sign Red Line
CTA staff block off the area directly behind the train operator to promote social distancing. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Waiting CTA Clark/Division
One person stands waiting for the train at the Clark/Division Red Line station on Wednesday, July 1. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Annette Freeman

Annette Freeman

Why are you taking the train? Heading home from work as a personal caregiver

How often have you ridden since the onset of the pandemic? Five out of every seven days

“I take care of people, I’m a caregiver. I go to their homes, and I assist with their daily duties. I’m a companion and do various things for the clients depending on what they need and what their abilities are.

To me, for CTA, I think they’ve been doing a good job as far as the social distancing, and the people that’s on the trains that I’ve been with, they’ve been social distancing. I haven’t had a problem, not at all. I’m blessed for that because I’m a hygienic person anyways.

I rely on it, I really do, because it gets me from point A to point B. … No matter where I have to go in the city, there’s a bus or train that can get me there. It’s very accessible. … That is my transportation, public transportation.”

Lake Red Line
The train arrives at the Lake Red Line station on Wednesday, July 1. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
CTA Red Line departs Cermak/Chinatown station
The train departs the Cermak/Chinatown station. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Manuel Martinez is WBEZ’s photojournalist. Follow him @DenverManuel. Katherine Nagasawa is WBEZ’s audience engagement producer. Follow her @Kat_Nagasawa.