The Elevator Arises As The Latest Logjam In Getting Back To Work

By Lauren Weber, Midwest correspondent, who covers how America’s health system is working — and not working — for patients in that region. Based in St. Louis, her hometown, she tackles everything from rural hospital closures to health system consolidation to state and national reform promises made on the 2020 campaign trail. Formerly a health policy reporter for HuffPost based in Washington, D.C., she has covered a wide variety of topics including Ebola and hepatitis A outbreaks as well as the health of migrant detainees. While at HuffPost, she also created “The Morning Email,” a weekday rundown of the news, and served as the voice of HuffPost on Amazon Echo. She was a 2017 USC Annenberg Health Journalism National Fellow. Originally published at Kaiser Health News

When the American Medical Association moved its headquarters to a famous Chicago skyscraper in 2013, the floor-to-ceiling views from the 47th-floor conference space were a spectacular selling point.

But now, those glimpses of the Chicago River at the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed landmark, now known as AMA Plaza, come with a trade-off: navigating the elevator in the time of COVID-19.

Once the epitome of efficiency for moving masses of people quickly to where they needed to go, the elevator is the antithesis of social distancing and a risk-multiplying bottleneck. As America begins to open up, the newest conundrum for employers in cities is how to safely transport people in elevators and manage the crowd of people waiting for them.

If office tower workers want to stay safe, elevator experts think they have advice, some practical, some not: Stay in your corner, face the walls and carry toothpicks (for pushing the buttons). Not only have those experts gone back to studying mathematical models for moving people, but they are also creating technology like ultraviolet-light disinfection tools and voice-activated panels.

“When there is risk of disease spreading from human to human, continuing to maintain a clean and safe vertical transportation system is critical to help people return to work and safe living,” said Jon Clarine, head of digital services at Thyssenkrupp Elevator, in an email.

After all, most elevators are inherently cramped, enclosed spaces that can barely fit two people safely spaced 6 feet apart, much less the dozen or more that elevators in commercial and residential buildings were designed to hold. They’re a minefield of buttons and surfaces tempting to touch. Air circulation is limited to what a few vents and the opening doors can manage. Plus, they’re usually mobbed during the morning, lunchtime and evening rushes.

“When there is risk of disease spreading from human to human, continuing to maintain a clean and safe vertical transportation system is critical to help people return to work and safe living,” says Jon Clarine, Head of Digital Services at Thyssenkrupp Elevator.
(Infographic Courtesy of Thyssenkrupp Elevator)

The good news is, while infection transmission is possible if people leave behind respiratory droplets of virus in the elevator, the time spent on a ride is short, said infectious disease expert Dr. Steven Lawrence of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Still, he said, “you’re in a small box.”

To mitigate those risks, elevator experts stress, those riding elevators should wear masks, resist touching surfaces as much as possible and use items such as disposable tissues or, indeed, those toothpicks to touch the buttons. Also, use hand sanitizer frequently. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends limiting time in elevators and taking one-directional stairs instead, when possible, as well as maintaining 6 feet of distance.

Karen Penafiel, executive director for the National Elevator Industry Inc. trade association, also recommends people face the elevator walls and not talk to minimize the spread of respiratory droplets that could carry the coronavirus.

“It makes sense when you think about it, but it’s so contrary to every social protocol we have been raised with,” Penafiel said. “It’s not comfortable.”

But the biggest hang-up across city skylines for offices and residences may be the recommendation by Penafiel and other elevator experts to limit the number of riders to four to accommodate social distancing for most elevator rides — one in each corner. That creates a logistical challenge for building managers and employers who have thousands of people to move within a single building.

AMA Plaza owner Beacon Capital Partners plans to limit its elevator riders to four at a time, according to an email from company spokesperson Maureen Richardson. The same goes for the more than 90-floor One World Trade Center in New York City and the roughly 8,000 people who report to work there, said Jordan Barowitz, spokesperson for the Durst Organization, which oversees the management of the iconic skyscraper.

Cutting the number of people moving up a building per ride — in some places by as much as two-thirds — means people wait and wait, huddling in the lobby, coughing, sneezing and talking loudly. “That’s where you’re going to get the queuing,” said Chris Smith, vice president of marketing and product strategy for elevator manufacturer Otis Elevator Co., optimistically using a word suggesting orderly standing in line.

It’s no wonder Smith’s customers have been calling nonstop about the elevator bottleneck. So 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.

It all comes down to hard math. On a normal day, over 3,000 people work in the 52-story AMA building. With only four passengers at a time, which is about half of a typically crowded elevator, that translates to about 750 elevator rides each morning launching from 24 elevator cabs (and that’s not counting the trips made by separate freight cabs).

The Langham, a luxury hotel occupying the building’s first 13 floors, will place a sign with graphics in the elevator foyer to encourage social distancing, emailed spokesperson Deepika Sarma. Hotel staffers are looking into possible decals for the floors of the elevators indicating where to stand, and requiring riders to wear masks.

Another tenant of AMA Plaza, WeWork, whose business model depends on people renting its office space, will be placing signage denoting safe distances in the elevator lobbies of its buildings, as well as touch-free hand sanitizer dispensers. WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani told CNBC that 40% of its sites occupy office space low enough within buildings that people could take the stairs instead.

WeWork places signage with guidelines for social distancing and touch-free hand sanitizer dispensers in their elevator lobbies. (Courtesy of WeWork)

But climbing, say, 36 flights of stairs isn’t an option for most people. (Top stair racers take five minutes to cover that many floors. It takes a person of average fitness up to 25 minutes.) And stairs aren’t viable in buildings of any height for those with physical disabilities or mobility issues or when carrying heavy loads.

To be sure, those who live in high-rises have already been navigating these questions — whether in luxury buildings with resources or public housing units without.

But as more offices look at reopening, Otis and Thyssenkrupp have been swamped with calls from customers asking for new technology to help them manage these new challenges sparked by the coronavirus. Destination dispatching, in which employees can swipe a key card at a turnstile that notifies the elevator where they need to go, has seen a surge of interest due to its touchless control — and during the pandemic, elevators have been reprogrammed to limit the weight load to a smaller number of passengers.

Other product offerings in the works include calling the elevator via cellphone, antiviral stickers for elevator buttons, lobby concierge-run elevators, express service for each elevator ride, ultraviolet-light HVAC purification systems and even elevator buttons that riders can activate with their feet, their voice or hand gestures.

To reduce the need to touch buttons, Otis’ Smith said, elevators could be placed into “Sabbath service” mode, where they automatically go to each and every floor — a service offered for decades for those whose religion dictates they not operate electrical devices on certain days.

Brand-new businesses designed to make elevators safer are emerging. Over two months ago, Philip Rentzis helped found Ashla Systems, which sells ultraviolet-light systems designed for elevators that are similar to those used to kill viruses for hospital instruments. At least 100 buildings have already signed up to install the technology, he said, in part because building owners are terrified about the long-term costs of keeping up their new rigorous cleaning regimens.

Michael Rogoff, president of the New York City and South Florida residential management firm Akam Living Services Inc., said some of his building staffs are cleaning the elevators more than once per hour — or even after every use. When residents complain that they shouldn’t have to pay for communal amenities they’re not able to use, he points to the new cleaning costs.

“The elevator cleaning and disinfecting is just on a whole new level than it was previously,” Rogoff said.

But even as companies evaluate their suite of elevator options, harsh realities are emerging of how challenging it will be to move the workforce where it needs to be, Thyssenkrupp’s Clarine said.

“Look, you’re going to disrupt the flow of traffic in your building, but how long are you willing for that to be an inconvenience before it becomes a disruption?” Clarine said. “It’s all about helping customers manage risk, and some want to manage more so than others.”

For now, the American Medical Association said it plans to allow its roughly 1,000 employees to return to the offices approximately 30 days after city and state leaders lift their stay-at-home orders. City orders were loosened June 3.

The association’s initial return-to-work phase will begin with “approximately 10% of employees on a voluntary basis,” according to a statement issued by association media manager Robert Mills. It’s not yet clear when — or how — it will be able to get the rest of its staffers up to their offices in the sky.



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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Just some personal anecdotes on this. I’m on the committee of my apartment block management group, and back at the very beginning of this I asked for everyone to agree to more intensive cleaning of our lifts as a precaution. Each core has a small lift, and with some of them, they are the only means of access to the carpark. Plus, we have a number of disabled residents and they have no option but to use them.

    I was surprised at the pushback. Apart from the cost, concerns were raised at the liability issues (I still don’t understand the argument, but several people seem convinced that additional cleaning makes us potentially liable, possibly for our caretaker). Especially when I suggested that each lift should have some disinfectant for residents to voluntarily do regular sprays and cleans. Our management company was similarly resistant to suggestions – they seemed not to want to engage, again, quoting liability, which seems to be a generalised response when people don’t really want to think too much about an issue.

    Now that we are settling back into ‘normal’, I’ll raise it again, although I suspect that there will be a similar negative response. I’m interested in the idea of UV lights, which is one possibility, but these have energy implications and may not be compatible with the particular design.

    1. Basil Pesto

      You would think that as a matter of jurisprudential policy, courts would be very hesitant to find liability for… whatever it is your colleagues seem to think they’d be liable for, when a good faith attempt is made to implement sound communal hygiene during a pandemic. Maybe I’m naïve (knowing next to nothing about the Irish legal system).

  2. Ignacio

    I live in a 16-storey building and the use of the elevator is an issue. Not as problematic as in a workplace but it is. Fortunately, the time spent in the cabin is not long but in such small place someone infected could leave high virus concentrations in the air and surfaces. Occasionally I don’t want to use a mask to discard it inmediately after elevator use then I usually use my own clothing or my elbow as a temporary protection and do not touch anything, I will accept as many as three other persons in the cabin as long as they protect themselves as I do.

  3. dbk

    This is one of the critical issues involving office workers’ return to on-site operations imho.

    Another: Pre-boarding crowding, especially if a limit on no. of passengers per trip is imposed.

    Another: Office buildings whose windows don’t open.

    So to recap, office workers will be faced with the following sources of possible infection: (a) public transportation (most use the subway); (b) waiting in crowds for the elevator; (c) the elevator; (d) the office itself.

    One of my children works in NYC on the 15th floor of a 20-floor building. The organization has approx. 200 employees. There are three elevators serving these 20 floors, one of which is permanently out of service, leaving two (one or the other of which is also out of order on any given day).

    Assuming about 200 people working on each floor, that’s 4,000 people to get up (and down) daily. With 5 persons per trip, that’s 800 trips – 400 per elevator, assuming both are in service (infrequent).

    Just for one floor, an elevator would require 40 trips (40 x 5 = 200); assuming 3 min. per trip, that’s 120 minutes total, i.e. 2 hours to get a single floor of employees up in (relatively) safe conditions if only one elevator is functional, and an hour if both are.

    And that’s before an employee has even started their workday in an open-plan office space without outside ventilation.

  4. anon

    I always have Clorox wipes and/or hand sanitizer to clean hands if there isn’t a sink nearby. Buildings should provide small pieces of tissue in the elevator for people to use to press buttons as well.

  5. jcmcdonal

    My wife’s work, at 18 floors, had an estimated 3.5 hours to get everyone into the building following all procedures, and then another 3.5 to get everyone out. It’s just not feasible. She is wfh through 2020, and likely until we totally give up on protections.


    The article completely misses the point. The primary transmission of the virus is not by touching surfaces. It’s by inhaling droplets. COVID-19 could be stopped in its tracks if everyone simply wore a mask.

    It needn’t even be an N-95. Those cheap surgical masks that are in boxes outside hospital rooms will catch saliva and prevent it from being transmitted.

    The illustration shows a person, not wearing a mask!

    Repeat this slogan until it sinks in: MY MASK PROTECTS YOU. YOUR MASK PROTECTS ME. WEAR A MASK.

    Then you won’t have to walk up and down 40 flights of stairs or try social distancing in an elevator box.

    If everyone wore a mask, COVID-19 would disappear within 14 days. See:

  7. Louis Fyne

    Yes, elevators are an issue… But let us look at Korean contract tracing data. Inthe hierarchy of transmission vectors, it is corporate cubicle farms, (close contact) warehouses, and nightclubs that one should be much, much worried about more

    Just saying.

  8. njbr

    Open grate flooring on top and bottom of the cab.

    Ideal vertical airflow while in motion.

    1. rtah100

      Brilliant! Except for acrophobics :-). I had a chief scientist who was terrified of drops and had to keep her ees shut in glass lift and sit back to the window in office towers. NY meetings were hard….

      Also you need UV sterilisers or the wind will be just be the last trip’s droplets

  9. ObjectiveFunction

    Sorry, that’s an exaggeration. Masks definitely help, a lot, probably more than anything else. But that alone won’t eliminate Covid.

    I’ve said this before, but I believe there is potential to adopt some cleanroom ventilation techniques used today in biotech and chip fabs. Air and droplets are forced strongly downward and out, via waffle floor vents. A cheap retrofit? Hell no! but you can’t have everything.

    …And you might issue disposable plastic head bags (lol, I know, mom said never! and yeah, plastic) for the short trip, like the wet umbrella bags many offices offer. This could reduce (though likely not eliminate) the involuntary sneeze or cough (or uncouth jerk on his phone) risks we run in the confined space.

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