A line of Philadelphia big shots snipped their scissors in concert, and the ribbon fell away Tuesday, marking the grand opening of the 5th Street/Independence Hall subway station and, even more, the sense that the city at last is returning to life after a long twilight struggle with COVID-19.
On Tuesday, SEPTA removed capacity limits on trains, trolleys, and buses designed to combat the spread of the coronavirus — no more marked-off seats for social distancing. The city lifted most of its restrictions as did Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“We can feel from the vibe things are beginning to come back,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “Center City has been full of people the last couple weekends,” and some offices are opening again.
“We need people to go out and eat lunch and shop and do the things they’re used to doing when they’re back in their offices,” the mayor said.
In a sign nature is healing, a bus disgorged a group of schoolchildren to tour the historic sites.
SEPTA had its highest ridership since the beginning of the pandemic Friday heading into the holiday weekend, general manager Leslie S. Richards said. Overall, daily passenger counts are about 40% of pre-pandemic normal on city transit: the Broad Street Line, the Market Frankford Line, the buses, and trolleys, she said. On Regional Rail, ridership is about 20% of normal volume.
The $20.4 million makeover of the station, including tiles and murals depicting the history of the city, was completed last summer, but it never had a grand opening, given restrictions on public gatherings.
“What’s really nice about the mural is it’s not just the white guys down there on the walls, the people that we were taught about in grade school,” Kenney said. He mentioned James Forten, a Black man who had a prosperous business making sails for commercial ships during the founding era of the United States.
“He was one of the richest people in the country at the time, and no one knew his name, because all those stories were pulled from the history books,” Kenney said.
Though capacity on SEPTA vehicles is increasing, masks still must be worn on board, in stations, and on platforms. It’s a federal regulation on all forms of public transportation, based on CDC recommendations. The Transportation Security Administration enforces the rule.
SEPTA’s latest ridership numbers are sizable improvements from just a short while ago. “It’s coming back incrementally,” Richards said.
For many, there is a psychological hurdle that must be overcome to start taking transit again. Richards said many people who are riding for the first time in more than a year say they were surprised at how clean the cars were and how safe they felt.
SEPTA has stepped up cleaning of its vehicles and maximized air exchange aboard.
“Of course, if you don’t see it, your mind continues to make up these stories, to create these fears,” Richards said. “So it really is helpful when people get out they see for themselves … others are riding and that communal feeling is coming back.”