Can you catch COVID-19 from riding in an elevator? Experts weigh in on risks

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As Bay Area workers continue to work from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some workplaces are starting to look at how they can operate in a world where coronavirus still exists.

Many offices have some physical roadblocks that need to be navigated to allow for social distancing. Desks can be pushed farther apart and Plexiglas installed to separate workers, but what about things that can't be moved farther apart like elevators?

Elevators are an essential means of transportation for workers in high rise office buildings, but they can not easily be made larger to create more social distance.

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Social distancing has not been a critical issue in many Bay Area elevators since their traffic has been down drastically in the last few months.

According to Thyssenkrupp, one of the Bay Area's largest elevator providers, Bay Area elevator use was at its lowest in mid-April but now is rising slowly. Thyssenkrupp is getting that data from about two-thousand Bay Area elevators that are digitally connected to monitor activity.

During the last week of August - the number of Thyssenkrup elevator trips in San Francisco office buildings was just 23% of normal, in San Jose it was at 40% of normal, while in Oakland usage was at 46% of normal.

But as usage starts to ramp up, companies are exploring innovative technology as well as common sense health protocols to keep elevators working in the COVID-19 world.

First, can you catch coronavirus in an elevator?



"I understand the anxiety is high, but the reality is that the risk in the elevators is quite low," said Joe Allen, assistant professor with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Allen says riding an elevator, even with other people on board, is relatively safe 'if' you take precautions.

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"We know how this virus is spread, that means we know which controls should line up to prevent the spread," explains Allen.

His top tips: Wear a mask, don't talk unless absolutely necessary, try not to sneeze or cough - but if you have to, turn toward the wall and sneeze into your elbow, don't touch anything, but if you do wash your hands afterwards.

Allen says he's gotten so many questions about COVID-19 and elevators - he even made a Facebook video with more advice.



New elevator technology being considered



Some elevator companies are selling buttons you can tap with your feet - and new improved air purifiers.

Thyssenkrupp's high tech elevator system is now being used to assign people to specific elevator cars to prevent overcrowding.

"Elevator traffic is down across the board, so what that allows us to do is actually reprogram those elevators," explained Jon Clarine of Thyssenkrupp Digital Services. "So it doesn't direct people to maximize or fill the elevator up, but only directs four or less people onto a cabin so they have room in that cabin to socially distance."

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Another big elevator company, Schindler, is also using its advanced systems to make rides safer.

At the Post-Montgomery building in San Francisco employees have Schindler's pre-programmed cards that tell the elevator which floor they work on without pushing buttons.

Schindler is now piloting the next phase - using smartphones.

"We can put Bluetooth beacons inside the devices and it will connect to your phone through a Schindler app," said Mark Freeman, Vice President of Modernization. "So you could actually maintain your social distance in the lobby and enter your call using your own smartphone."

Simple changes can also make a safety difference



You've probably seen some of these changes. Some companies have placed little diagrams on the elevator floor to show people where to stand to create maximum social distance.

Some buildings have already moved to limit the number of people in each elevator with simple signs at each entrance.

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Crowd reduction can also come from employers making changes to the workday.

"The companies are going to have to do their job in terms of extending the workday, so we can have staggered arrivals and departures and de-densifying the office," Allen said.

But no matter what precautions have been put in place, experts say you should still use common sense. So if an elevator looks crowded - skip it and get on the next one.

If you have a question or comment about the coronavirus pandemic, submit yours via the form below or here.

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