The welcome team was in place.
A 1:45 a.m., four transit workers scrubbed benches, disinfected stair rails with bleach and washed the grime away from a subway station in Brooklyn. Four uniformed police officers kept watch.
Nadav Shahaf, 18, a high school student wearing a black mask and a bright red sweatshirt, came bounding down the stairs and plopped onto a newly cleaned bench. He had it all to himself. He was heading home after a late-night stroll with his girlfriend.
“I’m happy we got to this point,” he said. “It’s been a tough journey, but we’ve done a good job as a city, as a community.”
The 24-hour New York City subway was back.
The United States’ busiest transit system returned to full screeching service early Monday after more than a year of overnight closings during the coronavirus pandemic to provide more time to clean and disinfect trains, stations and equipment. It was the longest planned shutdown since the subway opened in 1904.
The resumption of round-the-clock service comes at a challenging moment for the transit system with fears about subway crime on the rise after a spate of random attacks that has also raised questions about how willing commuters will be to return to the subway and nudge ridership closer to prepandemic levels.
Still, the restoration of full subway service represents a major milestone on the city’s long road back from a public health crisis that made New York a global epicenter of the outbreak. It is one of the few cities in the world that usually never closes its subway, long a source of pride for New Yorkers.
“We’re thrilled to have people come back 24-7,” Sarah Feinberg, the interim subway chief, said in a television interview aired on Sunday. “We’re a 24-7 city, we want to be a 24-7 system. We always have been except for the last year, so it’s wonderful to be able to bring back ridership to 24 hours a day.”
The return of the 24-hour subway comes as virus rates have fallen and the ranks of the vaccinated swell, and as the state and its neighbors, New Jersey and Connecticut, plan to lift almost all pandemic restrictions on Wednesday.
Transit officials planned to mark the occasion on Monday morning by ringing the bell of the New York Stock Exchange along with frontline workers. On Sunday, they unveiled a new campaign — #TakeTheTrain — to try to lure back more riders.
Subway ridership has started to pick up after plunging last year but remains far below where it was before the pandemic. Average weekday ridership is currently about 2.17 million riders, compared with around 5.49 million riders prepandemic.
But a series of high-profile assaults on riders and transit workers threatens to scare away passengers and undermine the city’s recovery. A group of men slashed three riders and punched a fourth person early Friday, just hours after a mayoral debate in which the leading Democratic candidates expressed worries about the safety of the system but were divided over whether to deploy more police officers.
Manuel Ibanez, 40, a filmmaker, said he felt better seeing police officers as he boarded a train in Brooklyn at 1:45 a.m. Monday. “I’m a little paranoid about the attacks,” he said. “I take care of myself more now, look around at my surroundings, be more aware.”
Just over a year ago, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo shut down the subway system from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. daily at the height of the pandemic to allow for intensive cleaning. The closing was shortened to 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. in February.
From the system’s earliest days, New York’s subway has rumbled across neighborhoods at all hours, carrying poor and working-class riders to their jobs at factories, hotels and restaurants. It connected New Yorkers of all races and incomes and drove the city’s economic booms.
“New York is a city that depends on transit more than virtually any other city,” said Andrew J. Sparberg, 73, a subway historian and author. “People think of the subway as the lifeblood of the city — without it, the city grinds to a halt.”
Elected officials, transit advocates and riders have pushed for overnight subway service to be restored, saying that the overnight closing is especially unfair to essential workers — many of whom are low paid and people of color — and made their lives harder when they were keeping the city running.
“The subway was more important than ever to the people who took it throughout the pandemic — and all New Yorkers, in turn, who depended on their ability to get to work,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group. “Even if only thousands of people were commuting at that particular time, in essence millions were depending on that commute.”
In Queens, Kathely Moura, 20, a package handler for FedEx, carried two coffees and a bottle of iced tea as she stepped onto a nearly empty No. 7 train platform at 74th Street and Broadway just before 2 a.m. Monday. Her shift started at 3 a.m., and she no longer had to leave a half-hour early just to ride the subway.
“I love being at work, but I definitely don’t want to be there 30 minutes early,” she said. “I could be also sleeping those 30 minutes.”
Other riders had turned to night buses that they complained took too long and did not stop where they needed, or paid for taxi and Uber rides that they could not afford.
“It was really messed up, it was a disaster,” said Paul Derby, 64, a construction worker from Manhattan, who said he had wasted precious hours on buses when the subway was closed. “It was a lot of time. The subway is faster and more reliable.”
Celestina Hicianomesa, 56, who lives in the Bronx, said that she had to take $25 taxi rides to 125th Street in Manhattan to catch a bus to La Guardia Airport where she works as a cleaner.
The overnight closings have also brought renewed focus on the homeless and mentally ill who seek refuge on the subway
“On the street, it’s hard,” said Ronald Lundi, 71, a former security guard who is homeless, as he rested on a bench inside a Brooklyn station at 2:40 a.m. During the overnight closings, he had slept on a bench in Prospect Park. “Cold or not, you have no choice.”
Riders like Dorian Cruz, a maintenance worker from Harlem, said he was thrown out of the Times Square station at 2 a.m. a couple weeks ago while trying to get home. He ended up walking.
But at 2:30 a.m. Monday, he was headed home on a train. “It’s a beautiful thing to allow people to get around more,” he said.