A traveler stands alone at the center of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Pa. on Dec. 15, 2020.
Traveling Amtrak during COVID-19: An unusual holiday season at 30th Street Station
Writing and photography by Kylie Cooper
Won 1st Place in the Parker Prize for Journalistic Writing
December 19, 2020
The light filtered in magnificently through the windows that soar up to the high ceiling and fill each of the four walls. It illuminated the center of the grand concourse and bathed the long, dark wood benches lined against the north and south sides of the room. On the east end rose a Christmas tree laden with red and gold ornaments, and on the west end sat a menorah lit with six blue electric candles. The heating vents between the benches refracted the light, turning people on the other side of the room into wavy and distorted figures.
Any Philadelphian would know that it’s December at 30th Street Station.
Above puffy coats zipped tight and below hats pulled snug, though, each person wore a mask — no matter if they were walking through the station or sitting on a bench. Near one of the escalators leading down to the train tracks, people carefully lined up, each standing atop black and yellow stickers spaced six feet apart on the smooth floor.
“All customers are required to wear a face covering,” a disembodied woman’s voice cooly echoed throughout the cavernous station.
Anybody would know that it’s December 2020.
30th Street Station is Amtrak’s third-busiest station in the United States, but it doesn’t seem like it right now. This fiscal year (October 2019 – September 2020), Amtrak lost 15.2 million passengers when compared to the previous year, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and states’ subsequent travel restrictions. The company quickly implemented health and safety rules at the beginning of the pandemic, but it hasn’t been enough to comfort and draw most passengers back.
“I definitely feel a little anxious,” said Arianna Balbo, a junior at Drexel University who was traveling back home to New York City. “I try to avoid traveling as best as possible.”
Balbo had been standing near one of the information screens at the center of the concourse for at least 20 minutes, despite there being plenty of space to sit on the benches. Like most other travelers in the station, she had headphones in and was scrolling through her phone. But unlike most others, she wore two masks; an N95 was snuggled under a black polyester one.
This semester, Balbo lived off-campus and stayed home once Thanksgiving break began, returning to Philadelphia for two days this month so she could check up on her apartment. She had taken Amtrak to come back, which was the first time she had used public transportation since the pandemic began.
“The trains near my house felt more anxious, even though they were mostly empty,” Balbo said. “People were just a little bit more reckless in the fact that they weren't wearing masks, even though it’s mandated. But other than that, I felt pretty fine.”
Two people in the station weren’t wearing masks at all, and others removed them while talking on the phone, eating, or for no apparent reason at all. One man, with his mask below his chin, dragged his feet noisily across the floor while blowing his nose, bending over at one point to spit into a trash can. Another man, without any face covering, entered the station from the 29th Street entrance, the crinkling of a bag of chips in his hand magnified by the vast space. Nobody reminded him of the rule.
“It's still a little bit weird to see that, because I'm just used to everybody wearing masks,” Balbo said. “But it's more of them risking it than me, because I know that I'm protecting myself.”
Jessie Fisher, 62, felt the same way.
“Honestly, as long as I'm wearing a mask, I don't really care that much,” Fisher said from behind her dark green cloth mask, which was patterned with Christmas holly.
She had come to Philadelphia for the day to go to the dentist, taking the SEPTA Regional Rail from her home 20 miles away in Horsham, PA. As HR manager for Penn Medicine’s Department of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics, Fisher has been working remotely, but did use the Regional Rail four times to go into the office this fall.
“I was a little nervous the first time,” Fisher said, “but I'll tell you, I was more nervous about using the SEPTA key card thing, which is a whole new process, than I was about traveling during the pandemic.”
Like many other Americans, Fisher has primarily chosen to drive during the pandemic, including when she visited her brother and niece in New Jersey for Thanksgiving. Although the Center for Disease Control and Prevention warned against traveling this Thanksgiving, many still did. Nov. 29, the Sunday after the holiday, was the busiest day for air travel since the pandemic began, with about 1.18 million passengers.
Some people, though, don’t feel safe flying, and they don’t want to — or can’t — drive. Amtrak recognizes this, which is why they’ve rebranded their private rooms and implemented enhanced cleaning practices. They’ve even partnered with RB, the maker of Lysol.
But no matter how much the company tries to entice customers, it’s held back by one of its own new rules: limited bookings. By operating at a smaller capacity, physical distancing is possible within train cars. SEPTA, too, has taken steps to promote distancing by designating which seats passengers may sit in. As a result, 30th Street Station lies mostly silent.
Travelers wait for their trains at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Pa. on Dec. 15, 2020.
There weren’t any conversations struck up between strangers sitting on opposite benches to while away the time. The hum of the trains below and announcements in the distance faded into the white noise, blending into one with the click of suitcase wheels and the thumps of winter boots. A woman one hundred feet away spoke animatedly on the phone, but her words were whisked away by the 95-foot-tall ceilings.
There were some signs of life. Fluttering wings of three brown birds who’d made it into the station interrupted the silence and drew some smiles as they searched for abandoned food. As lunchtime neared and more travelers filtered into the concourse, friends could be heard shouting “Happy birthday!” and a little girl decked in a furry hot pink hat and coat posed sassily in front of the Christmas tree. But for the most part, the people who were there kept their heads down and eyes averted.
While detrimental to business, many travelers met the lull with open arms.
“It's a lot nicer than during the regular year, because it's not crowded,” Fisher said. “And there aren't any issues with getting places late.”
Emma Villamater, a junior at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, felt much safer because of Amtrak’s reduced capacity. She was traveling home to Baltimore for winter break.
“I can sit five seats — and by myself — away from someone,” Villamater said.
Throughout the pandemic, Villamater has used public transportation five times, and her comfort level with traveling depends on the type of transportation. She took Amtrak’s Keystone Service to visit a friend at Franklin & Marshall College, which she said was very empty. She’s gone home from Philadelphia three times by means of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional service, which she said is a little more uncomfortable due to the greater number of people who use the line to travel between New York City and Washington, D.C.
Taking Amtrak, though, has been far better than the time she flew to Charleston, South Carolina to visit a friend earlier this fall.
“That was the weirdest experience of my life,” Villamater said. “I was actually sitting next to a stranger, which was weird — especially when they took off their mask to eat.”
Unlike Balbo and Fisher, Villamater was still concerned while in 30th Street Station because of the people who didn’t wear their masks correctly or at all.
“I was sitting on that bench over there, and then someone came down and sat really close to me and was eating without their mask on,” she said. “I just felt uncomfortable being so close to that person, so I felt like I had to move, but I didn't want to be rude. There's that added degree of uncomfort and uneasiness, at least in the train station.”
Villamater would like to see 30th Street Station enforce social distancing more strictly, such as how airports designate some seats near the gates as unavailable.
A traveler speaks to an attendant at the ticket counter at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Pa. on Dec. 15, 2020.
Her fear and desire for more precautions comes as many places throughout the nation are hitting record-breaking daily case counts. Public health officials have linked the spike to Thanksgiving travel, and the majority of states have responded by tightening restrictions. Travel restrictions are currently in place throughout 22 states, and some states, including Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, have limited indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people.
These guidelines, coupled with the CDC’s advisory against traveling for the winter holidays, are attempts to stem even more cases that may result from a myriad of holiday celebrations.
"You go through Christmas and Hanukkah, you go through the week between Christmas and New Year's, and then you have another celebration on New Year's," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during the Milken Institute’s Future of Health Summit on Dec. 7. "That extends that vulnerable period by two or three times what you do in Thanksgiving."
And yet, in spite of these restrictions and warnings, 84.5 million Americans still plan to travel this holiday season.
One person that won’t be going anywhere for the holidays, though, is Harrisburg resident Aaron Cooper, 65.
“I got 13 grandkids,” he said. “I’d usually be around my family, but now, until this thing is over, no.”
For Thanksgiving, Cooper stayed at home and ate with his friend he sees every day. Although he’s been making sure to limit his interactions with others, he’s not very concerned about traveling itself. He’s in the process of moving into a new home in Philadelphia, and was headed back to Harrisburg to move some belongings into storage.
Cooper enjoyed the emptiness of 30th Street Station, and was able to sit on a bench by himself for the entirety of his wait.
“Hopefully we’ll make it through this, and I'll see people — a lot of friends — that I’ve wanted to see,” Cooper said.
And now, millions of doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine are joining the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine in being distributed across the U.S. Next holiday season, everyone in the country will likely be able to see their friends and family members again.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel.