on August 17th, 2020

It is estimated that in the United States alone, elevators travel up to 4.5 million miles every single day. The 31st of July is International Talk In An Elevator Day — it encourages people to engage with someone in an elevator, instead of looking down at their devices and ignoring their surroundings. However, for the first time since ‘Talk In An Elevator Day’ was coined, engineers and scientists are warning against striking up conversations in elevators. The coronavirus pandemic has put the day on pause for 2020 — and there is good scientific evidence as to why.

Amid the pandemic, Richard Corsi, Dean of Engineering and Computer Science and a specialist in indoor air quality at Portland State University in the United States, said: “They should put big signs on the elevator: ‘Do Not Speak.’”

He said this because of the risk run by people who are entering elevators during this time, given the close proximity of occupants. The virus has been particularly widespread in the United States, which recently saw its most significant one-day rise in coronavirus tests; 71,484 tested positive in one day.

Corsi, under the rising coronavirus cases, set out to investigate elevator safety in a pandemic using a method that only an engineer would. He created a model utilizing engineering principles akin to fluid mechanics and cross-referenced them to several kinds of elevators and buildings. Knowing there would be thousands of scenarios, he decided to choose one hypothetical scenario.

In his scenario, a mask-less COVID-19-positive passenger rides the elevator alone from the first floor to the tenth floor. During the ride, they speak on their phone and cough into the elevator car, which spreads the virus around.

When the elevator gets to the tenth floor, they exit the elevator. The doors remain open for ten seconds, close, and then the elevator returns to the ground floor. Taking into consideration the opening and closing of the doors and the subsequent circulation of air, plus the ventilation within the elevator, Corsi estimates at least 25 percent of the particles from the first passenger remain inside.

“The main intent of the exercise was just to show that some level of virus can be sustained in the air beyond an infected person using the elevator. I don’t know whether the dose in an elevator is going to be high enough to pose a significant risk, but I would probably take the stairs if possible,” Corsi told the New York Times.

He tweeted out a hypothetical elevator scenario, including the asymptomatic but infected individual traveling ten stories in a residential building. Evidently, this is an engineer doing their calculations, needing a bit more input from the science still being compiled about the coronavirus. Nonetheless, it is an admirable attempt to work with the facts the public is equipped with at the moment and guesstimating — based on what type of elevator someone is riding - whether or not it may be safe.

Moreover, Corsi’s calculations barely begin to cover the risk the floor number buttons pose to the passengers who touch them. Thankfully, Harvard School of Public Health’s Joseph Allen, an Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science has sound advice on what to do if you do find yourself in an elevator as businesses continue to open up:

  • Wear a mask
  • Load the elevator in a checkerboard pattern
  • Face forward
  • Announce your desired floor
  • Have the person near the buttons select for everyone, using their knuckles
  • No conversations

“Workers want to know whether they can really be safe in an elevator, and building owners want to know whether they get elevator capacity to more than one person at a time. Fortunately, the answer to both is ‘Yes,’” Allen said reassuredly.

Engineers, when probed on elevator safety, are erring on the side of caution due to the constant uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. Common sense precautions are becoming more important than waiting for the epidemiologists to aptly inform the global population on the safety of elevator rides. The question about elevator engineering and air circulation and quality is a rare moment where both engineers and scientists can revise some of their studies and come up with answers that can better inform those who ride them.

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