Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office

Yellow taxis lined up in lower Manhattan in 2018.

Read the original story in Spanish at El Diario Translated and condensed by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell

In mid-February, when the coronavirus began to threaten New Yorkers, Puerto Rican driver Jorge Laporte started taking precautions, assuming that his job put him “doubly at risk.” Weeks later, with the city paralyzed and thousands of fatalities, he has no question he made the right decision. 

“Once the news about this disease started to emerge, I did not want to go to the airport anymore. My wife is a cancer survivor, and I was terrified to think I could infect her. Imagine all the people coming in from Europe and Asia,” said Laporte.

The driver of an iconic New York yellow cab, a staple of the city’s urban landscape, faced a huge dilemma: pay the bills or protect his health and his family’s. Without thinking twice, he chose the latter. 

According to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), drivers have suffered the impact of the pandemic first-hand: 28 have died of COVID-19, most of them immigrants living in Queens. 

“On top of the risk of death, tens of thousands more are facing financial ruin, forced to choose between staying at home and risking their lives. Drivers need benefits immediately in order to survive,” a NYTWA spokesperson said on social media.  

The yellow cab driver’s guild, which has served the Big Apple since 1907, had been facing a series of challenges in the last five years. Among them: new taxes; a steep drop in business due to the growing car-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft; and the suicide of eight drivers who could not afford their licenses or their devalued medallions, which went from being worth $1 million to $250,000. 

Since 2015, these entrepreneurs and workers have been fighting their own “battle for survival,” but now many of them are worried that the current public health crisis could indeed be their “death blow” if it extends for several months more. 

Senegal-born cab driver Dot Shengami, who lives in The Bronx, prefers to wait for his customers parked in the line that forms in front of a midtown Manhattan supermarket than to drive around looking for fares. From his experience in the last five weeks, he says that doing so is a waste of gas. 

“There are no tourists. We are living through a period worse than 9/11. Two or three hours can pass before anyone gets into the cab. People would rather walk because they feel that being locked inside a taxi is a risk,” said Shengami. 

The driver added that, like most of his co-workers, he is already bankrupt. 

“This month, I had no money to pay the rent. I have four children. This is terrible because now you also risk bringing a disease to your family, and you have no idea how it could affect them,” he said. 

The yellow cab industry has felt the full force of the city’s economic standstill brought about by social distancing policies implemented to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The Metropolitan Taxi Board of Trade, representing the owners of 5,500 yellow cabs, said that rides have dropped almost 91 percent. 

The group described the collapse in demand for the service based on the number of weekend rides reported in the last weeks of March, when 20,596 rides were reported, an abysmal difference from the 217,540 total rides recorded on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays before the COVID-19 crisis.

The NYTWA, which represents at least 21,000 taxi and car-hail app drivers, explained to local media that a detailed survey answered by seven of its members saw drivers report having made an average of $368–before expenses, gas or taxes–between March 15 and 21. This represents a drop of 71 percent from their $1,260 income of two weeks before. 

Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the taxi alliance, says she receives dozens of calls every day from drivers who say they can no longer afford food and medicine. 

The slow activity is palpable in many areas of the city.

On a normal day pre-crisis, cab drivers used to wait 30 to 45 minutes in front of the Time Warner Center in Manhattan’s hectic Columbus Circle for customers. Now, with the closing of almost all retail and corporate activity in the area and hotels empty, they can sit in their cars for up to four hours, if they are lucky, before a customer shows up. 

Dominican-born driver José Feliz, 55, confirmed this as he waited in a usually bustling area of the city at around 6 p.m. on Friday. These days, he said, it looks more like a “desert,” populated only by about a dozen waiting yellow cabs. 

“We stand here because people sometimes come out of the supermarket with many bags and they need transportation. It is not worth it to drive around; everything is dead. This past week, I had only one trip to the airport (JFK) and came back empty. Flights are at zero, and the few people who arrive get an Uber or a Lyft,” said Feliz.

The driver, who does not own his license and works for the medallion’s owner, explained that he is thinking of giving up the car and applying for benefits to stop risking his health in the streets.

“If the city remains closed beyond the May 15 extension of the quarantine, we will definitely be moving into a more tragic period for all of us,” said Feliz.