Should We Worry About Elevators?

Photo: Jon Feingersh/Getty Images

On June 8, New York City entered phase one of its four-phase plan to reopen. But safely shedding the restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 is tricky, and one bit of trickiness I’m not sure you’ve spent much time considering is this: Have you thought about how we’re going to go back to using office elevators?

A new report from Kaiser Health News, surveying both medical and elevator experts, looks closely at the issue. I should say, first, that a study published recently in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, which looked at the spread of COVID-19 in a call center in South Korea, found that elevators don’t seem to pose as much of a risk as you might imagine. This is due to the limited amount of time one usually spends in an elevator, and the limited duration of contact:

“Despite considerable interaction between workers on different floors of building X in the elevators and lobby, spread of COVID-19 was limited almost exclusively to the 11th floor, which indicates that the duration of interaction (or contact) was likely the main facilitator for further spreading of SARS-CoV-2.”

Still, as office buildings unveil their plans to reopen, elevator companies are racing to find a way to ensure the safety of their riders. How will they deal with the morning, lunchtime, and evening rushes? And all of the button pushing?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking the stairs when possible, and maintaining six feet of distance. Karen Penafiel, the executive director for the National Elevator Industry Inc. trade association, told Kaiser Health News that she recommends people face the elevator walls and refrain from talking to each other. She admits, though, that this behavior might seem bit odd, socially. “It’s not comfortable.”’

Penafiel and other elevator experts who spoke with Kaiser Health News also recommend limiting the number of people per elevator ride. AMA Plaza, a 52-story skyscraper in downtown Chicago, and the 90-floor One World Trade Center in New York City are going to limit elevators to four people per ride. But this, of course, might lead to a glut of people waiting for an elevator, smushed together, defeating the purpose entirely.

So what, then? Chris Smith, vice president of marketing and product strategy for elevator manufacturer Otis Elevator Co., told Kaiser Health News that he might have a solution. “Otis staffers have been simulating for customers how staggered times for starting the workday and different employee spacing could help slow the flow of traffic.”

Signage about safe social distance, touch-free hand sanitizer dispensers, frequent cleaning, ultraviolet-light HVAC purification systems, and buttons you can tap with your feet are also all floated as suggestions.

Should We Worry About Elevators?