TORONTO—As tens of thousands of Canadian workers start preparing for a post-lockdown return to their offices, elevators have become a hot-button issue amid concerns about the potential for long lineups and frustrating waits to get up or down.
Highrise building operators in particular are trying to figure out how to ensure people can get to their office floors while maintaining adequate physical distancing recommended by health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19.
While offices can be modified to ensure people keep sufficiently apart, getting them safely inside once they start coming back presents its own unique challenges.
“You never think of elevators as the pinch point of a building, but now, because of what we’re trying to do, it really becomes apparent that it is,” said Ron Isabelle, an engineer and longtime elevator consultant. “Elevators are becoming the bottle neck in the building.”
With many office buildings now all but empty, elevator cramming has not been a problem. However, as more people begin exchanging their improvised home offices for the real thing, the issue has taken on a new life, especially if there’s a return to near normal occupancy.
Most commercial elevators can carry about 10 to 12 people at a time but public health advice to stay at least two metres apart makes that kind of capacity unthinkable. As a result, anxious landlords are pondering how to flatten their own rush-hour curves as they model scenarios in which either two, three or four people would be allowed in a cab at any one time.
“Elevators are not designed for social distancing,” Isabelle said. “If a landlord says I have to get up to 95 per cent, it’s not going to happen. It’s physically impossible unless you have people who start lining up at the building at five in the morning and exit the building at 10 o’clock at night.”
One major employer, EY Canada whose downtown Toronto office tower is 42 storeys, said physical distancing requirements would likely reduce the amount of available office space by half.
As a result, the company, which would normally have around 1,900 employees in the office, was looking ahead to eventually having only around 800 or 900, with the rest working remotely, said Darryl Wright, an associate partner. The numbers of people in communal spaces such as kitchens would be restricted.
Initially, Wright said only about 85 staff would be brought in, obviating the need for staggered staff times to avoid pinch points, although employees will likely adjust their work schedules if needed. The bottom line is that employees feel safe and public health rules can be followed, he said.
“We’ll learn as we go,” Wright said. “We’re just going to phase it in. There’s no rushing this.”
If office staff do return in large numbers, limiting elevator passenger loads could require security staff and physical measures such as queue lines to ensure no crowding in lobbies, passageways or elevators.
Another measure that could be used to enforce distancing is to use load weighing device, which tells an elevator to ignore calls for a car when it reaches a set maximum occupancy of say two people. That means, for example, those on intermediate floors waiting to go up or down might hear devices with just a few people whir past them without stopping.
One of the country’s largest office owners and operators, Toronto-based Cadillac Fairview said it was preparing for the pending transition back to the workplace. The company said it had been in touch with tenants to understand their needs and game plans.
In the interim, Cadillac Fairview said it was developing an approach that included signs asking for people to limit elevator occupancy and keep their distance once inside, physical barriers to manage queuing, and enhanced disinfection.
“Of course, in all of our planning we will respect local/provincial health guidelines,” the company said in an email.
Normally, the standard wait for an office elevator is around 35 seconds. Curtailing occupancy, especially for buildings that run 50 or more storeys, means wait times will soar.
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“Definitely, people will have to wait longer for an elevator,” Isabelle said.
Lower-rise workplaces, like the Ontario legislature, said on Friday it would limit elevator occupancy to two people and put up relevant signage. It also encouraged people to take the stairs.
Keeping elevator buttons and escalator handrails clean is important given numerous studies have shown the surfaces are subject to viral and bacterial contamination. It’s not yet clear how much of a threat the novel coronavirus might pose to elevator users but it is known to survive on various surfaces.