SEPTA police urge nonessential riders to stay off transit as coronavirus hits force

Philadelphia’s transit cops are “on edge” about managing the safety of the system while protecting themselves from coronavirus. At least two officers have tested positive.

Transit police stand outside the Clothes Pin in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Transit police stand outside the Clothes Pin in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At least two SEPTA police officers have tested positive for coronavirus and approximately 12 more have been quarantined because of their exposure,  SEPTA police union officials say.

Philadelphia’s transit cops are “on edge” about managing the safety of the system while also protecting themselves against the sickness responsible for more than 100 deaths in the city,  said Troy Parham, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Transit Police.

“We still have a job to do out there, and I think it’s just difficult for us to handle our duties as officers and maintain self-preservation at the same time,” said Parham. “It’s becoming so hard right now. How do we do both?”

The new cases come about a month after the force of roughly 260 officers began instituting protocol to protect against COVID-19. In mid-March, when just two officers were quarantined, SEPTA police split up their two-officer patrols in hopes of abiding by social distancing guidelines.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Officers also began bringing their equipment directly from home to the station, eliminating the use of locker rooms. To further limit possibilities for exposure, the police force stopped doing checks-in for roll calls at their precinct or unit location. The force additionally rented 30 cars so officers could remain mobile as service cuts went into effect.

SEPTA also put protocols in place requiring officers to wear face masks.

“SEPTA has been training and preparing for pandemics for several years,” said SEPTA police chief Thomas Nestel.

Nestel said that the agency is doing everything it can to keep the system safe as it confronts the first pandemic faced by the city since 1918.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“It has participated in exercises sponsored by the City of Philadelphia and the State’s Office of Homeland Security. As a result, we have forged relationships with a variety of agencies that could help the Transit Police, if needed,” Nestel said.

As of April 8, 116 SEPTA employees had tested positive for the coronavirus, including those within police units. Three SEPTA workers have died.

Within 24 hours of the third workforce fatality, the agency drastically reduced service to discourage nonessential trips on the system. They’ve also requested riders wear face masks. SEPTA police have been tasked with engaging people looking to hop on the system without good reason. City police can issue citations and fines up to $100 for people found to be ignoring orders to stay home and practice social distancing.

Parham said the safety of riders is just as important as it has ever been, but so is the safety of officers. Echoing SEPTA officials, Parham encouraged those looking to make nonessential trips to stay home.

“We got a bigger problem that we’re dealing with right now, which is that virus,” he said. “We all got to work together with this thing.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal