The New York subways will soon run longer into the night, transit officials announced on Monday, marking a step towards a full reopening of city life amid the coronavirus pandemic.

From next Monday, the subway system will only be closed for cleaning from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. instead of the current daily closure from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., officials said during a press conference. They described the move as the beginning of a “gradual reopening,” although they didn’t say when the trains would resume around the clock.

“New York is slowly returning to normal,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of the New York City Transit Authority, which manages the subways.

The regular overnight shutdown – the first in the system’s history – began last May when the pandemic hit New York. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, the Metropolitan Transit Authority that oversees transit in New York City, has ordered the city’s famous 24-hour subway system to be closed at night so that the entire system can be sanitized to allow the virus to spread .

Nightly cleaning of trains will continue during the shortened closings, officials said.

The pandemic has decimated the finances of cities across the country and eroded their transit agencies – in some smaller cities, young systems may be forced to shut down completely. In Minneapolis, the number of commuters last May fell by more than 98 percent compared to the previous year, according to the city traffic authority.

On Monday, Washington-based Metrorail reduced its service frequency for three lines during rush hour to “better tailor customers’ travel patterns during the pandemic” and manage costs, the transit agency said in a statement. Hours of operation remain unchanged, although the number of drivers on the Metrorail has decreased by almost 90 percent from before the pandemic.

In New York, Mr Cuomo and other officials had previously said the subway would not fully reopen until the end of the pandemic. The gradual opening seemed to signal a new approach.

In recent months, the governor has received increasing criticism from transit activists who alleged the shutdown injured thousands of key workers who were forced to find alternative travel options at night.

About 80 percent of overnight subway riders are people of color, and a third are low-income activists and several members of the New York City Council mentioned in a press release last week calling for Mr. Cuomo to restore service.

As freezing weather hit the city this winter, supporters of homeless New Yorkers have also raised concerns about the closure.

For decades, the city’s extensive subway system has also provided refuge for thousands of homeless New Yorkers who are wary of the city’s often overcrowded and sometimes violent shelters and prefer to take refuge in the 24/7 heated subways .

Now, homeless people who live on the streets are facing a dangerous mix of winter weather and a lack of indoor public spaces such as subway stations, trains, and fast food restaurants that once provided a break every night.

Critics of the nightly closures have also noted that scientists long ago concluded that the coronavirus spreads primarily through inhaled droplets rather than surfaces. There is little evidence that contaminated surfaces can spread the virus.

Even so, on Monday, Mr Cuomo said cleaning was important.

Clean trains can also help the transit agency lure drivers back as people return to work but continue to worry about overcrowded spaces. The number of drivers in the underground system has reached a plateau of around 30 percent of the prepandemic in recent months.

Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a transit group, praised the decision to shorten the nightly closings. But he asked the governor to fully reopen the metro system.

“Tens of thousands of drivers depend on the subway service overnight,” he said. “The partial reopening of the governor is an important step forward. Drivers will continue to push for a full reopening, given the MTA’s clear ability to clean trains and an urgent need to keep more eyes on the system to keep New Yorkers safe. “