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Distancing at Reopened Offices Will Mean Long Elevator Lines

April 27, 2020, 5:39 PM

The line for the elevator will probably look a lot different for many office dwellers when businesses gradually start reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 900,000 elevators make at least 18 billion passenger trips per year in the U.S., according to the National Elevator Industry Inc., a business association that represents some of the country’s largest lift manufacturers. The economic slowdown caused by the pandemic has given many of those elevators a rest, but companies are already thinking about how many workers can fit in a car at once, how to keep the air inside circulating, and what to do about potentially long waiting lines when they turn the lights back on.

“Elevator courtesies are going to get interesting,” Katherine Dudley Helms, an office managing shareholder with Ogletree Deakins, told Bloomberg Law. “A lot of people think they have armor on when they put their face masks on.”

Protective equipment policies and temperature checks are some of the most common items of discussion as businesses shift from noodling over how to transition fleets of employees into remote work situations to considering how to return those workers to the job. But there are myriad other operational challenges looming, including what to do with workplace elevators.

Moves in Georgia and South Carolina to reopen businesses could spur other states to start lifting stay at home orders, after recent guidance from the White House. Wall Street banks like Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. are already trying to figure out how to shuttle workers through Manhattan skyscrapers.

“The companies open to innovative solutions will be able to best navigate the changing landscape of work in a post-Covid-19 world,” Tara Ceranic Salinas, professor of business ethics at the University of San Diego School of Business.

Logistics, Logistics

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people maintain a “social distance” of at least six feet to combat the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. That begs the question: How do you do that in an elevator?

Passenger elevators must have certain minimum dimensions to comply with accessibility standards. Two people should be able to share a lift and keep the recommended distance in compliant elevators, and some freight elevators may allow multiple people in a car to keep the recommended distance, based on sample dimensions.

But it’s often going to be a tight fit.

“In our office building, if you get two people in there, you’re probably six feet apart at best,” Helms said. Employers should look at the dimensions of the elevators in their respective buildings before deciding on a specific policy, she said.

Businesses should also post signage reminding workers of their policies regarding elevator use, said Ashley Brightwell, a partner with Alston & Bird in Atlanta.

More Ventilation

A recent study at two hospitals in China shows the virus often lingers in the air, raising the risk of infection in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces.

Retrofitting elevators to increase airflow isn’t easy, said Nellie Brown, Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations director of workplace health and safety programs. That means employees returning to the office should wear masks when they’re moving from floor to floor, she said.

“There aren’t really any guarantees to me about how you would fix an elevator problem in terms of filtration,” she said. “You’re relying on people masking, for things like that.”

National Elevator Industry Executive Director Karen Penafiel said elevators are designed to provide plenty of fresh air for passengers, even when fully occupied. But she also said there are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

“The best way to reduce the spread of airborne germs is to reduce occupancy and adhere to CDC guidelines to wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores, pharmacies, and yes, elevators),” she said in an email.

Long Lines

Limiting the number of workers allowed on an elevator car at a time will inevitably create a logjam, Helms said.

“It’s like coming back in to the building after a fire drill,” she said.

Businesses should keep this in mind, and be as flexible as possible with workers, she added—with the caveat that this is an “extraordinary time” and attendance policies that regulate tardiness aren’t permanently changing.

The lines also will vary by workplace, as queues to get into a skyscraper are likely to look very different from those in smaller buildings with fewer occupants.

Although some office space managers may consider staggering work shifts and releasing a freight elevator to ease the bottleneck, Helms said, there’s no definite answer to avoiding a queue. That’s why it’s key for employers to be flexible and understand that some employees may be delayed en route to their desks.

“It could literally take someone 45 minutes to get into the office,” she said. “God forbid one of the cars shuts down.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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