Temple University

1 Person Per Elevator? Colleges Say Take the Stairs Because of COVID-19

The CDC recommends capacity limits and floor markings to maintain social distancing in elevators and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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As colleges and universities prepare for the likely return of students for some in-person classes, they revamping spaces to adhere to social distancing all over campus. One area that could prove a challenge to students and staff: limiting capacity in elevators, so the passengers can social distance.

Temple University is limiting passengers to two in some buildings, the university's Instagram page shows. University of the Arts is limiting passengers to 4 in larger cars and 2 in smaller ones, while urging anyone able-bodied to take the stairs, according to its reopening plan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends capacity limits for elevators in its guidance on office buildings. If an elevator is meant to carry multiple people, it should have floor markings spaced out so passengers remember to keep apart.

Though elevator rides can be short, the enclosed space makes them higher risk in terms of potentially spreading the virus, according to Rosie Frasso, who directs the public health program at Thomas Jefferson University.

“If you’re in an elevator and someone begins to cough, you can’t remove yourself from the space like you could in a grocery store,” she said.

TJU will make some elevators available only to someone with an ADA accommodation, a university statement said. In other buildings with larger elevator cars, signs will tell passengers of the capacity and floor decals will tell them where to stand.

Like many other changes being made, the new normal for elevators will take some getting used to, Frasso said. It presents one of the biggest challenges public health people face: changing behaviors.

"We are all in the habit of running from one place to another," Frasso added. "Jumping in a full elevator, or a full subway car or bus, is something many of us do without thinking."

It's unclear if the new rules will cause headaches with students getting to class on time, with several campuses moving courses at least partially - if not mostly - online. And most schools are turning parts of public spaces like libraries, conference rooms, gyms and offices into classrooms to avoid crowding. But in normal times on some campuses, long lines for an elevator up to your class are the norm.

Courtesy of Temple University
The grass at Beury Beach at Temple University is marked with circles for social distancing ahead of students' likely return to campus this fall.

For those going in person, it might be time to take a deep breath and be prepared to wait, or find the stairs. That's easier done on a less vertical campus like Rowan University in South Jersey, where students need to go four stories at most. The university says it will limit elevator rides to one person at a time.

"A lot of people already just take the stairs, it’s easier," said Joe Cardona, a Rowan spokesman. The university will have signage and 1-person capacity limits in academic building elevators, he added, and hopes they'll be saved for the differently abled who need them the most.

Frasso said passengers and people waiting will have to get used to awkward situations like telling people the elevator is full or waiting behind.

In the very few times she's been in an elevator lately, “I’ve been willing and very able to step out and say ‘Hey, you have the elevator,’ I’ll wait out here. Because I wasn’t in a hurry,” Frasso said.

In the grand scheme of reopening a campus in a pandemic, Frasso is more worried about the effects of students socializing, going to parties and risking exposure of the virus among dozens of partygoers. But that could be hard to enforce in students, who naturally want to socialize and meet new people.

Pandemic elevator etiquette is just one more of the behavior changes leaders are trying to introduce, like wearing a mask.

"Just like anything else, all you can do is educate people to the point where it becomes part of the culture," Cardona said.

On the upside, it'll get more able-bodied people making a healthy choice, Frasso said.

"I think we’ll see more people take the stairs, which is a nice collateral benefit of a really bad situation."

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