Hold the elevator? How to stay safe in close quarters during COVID-19

Hold the elevator? How to stay safe in close quarters during COVID-19

It’s becoming an increasingly ambiguous scenario: the elevator door opens and someone is already inside.

Do you go in, or do you wait for the next one?

Public health officials have been urging Canadians to maintain social distance and avoid high-traffic areas since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic weeks ago. But for those living in large cities across the country — especially those in apartment buildings or condo clusters — that can be easier said than done.

“The risk is high in those spaces simply because of the population density,” said Kevin Coombs, an infectious disease researcher and professor of medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba. “At the same time though, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword — if you have a large cluster of people, and none of them are infected, well then there’s nothing to be transmitted.

“The danger of course, is that we don’t know who is and who isn’t infected because not everyone is getting tested. So it’s always best to be cautious.”

Many residential buildings across the country have been implementing more safety measures since the outbreak was classified a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11.

Chief among those steps has been the closure of shared amenity spaces such as gyms, libraries and party rooms. But some buildings have also put into effect a passenger limit in elevators — usually two to four people.

How do you enforce that, though?

“One of course runs into some of the practical applications of (limiting passengers),” Coombs said. ”If you get into an elevator, what are you going to do if someone else wants to come in, say no? Nobody else can get into that elevator?

“I mean, it does raise some intriguing questions and I’m not sure I have the answer to that.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease expert based out of Toronto General Hospital, says people need to use common sense when navigating high-traffic areas like condo lobbies, elevators and shared laundry rooms.

And while guidelines and passenger limits are great to see, he agreed it’s difficult to make sure everyone abides.

“It’s impossible to micromanage every situation, right? But of course, we’re not aiming for perfection here,” Bogoch said. ”We just have to be really, really good most of the time because there are going to be situations that we’re just not going to be able to avoid.

“And I wouldn’t start legislating numbers of people in elevators. I would just say: ‘let’s be smart about it.’ If the elevator door opens and it’s packed, maybe wait for the next one.”

Another solution could be to just take the stairs when possible.

“That’s a good way to avoid sharing elevators, and a good way to keep healthy too,” said Natasha Salt, the Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

With apartment buildings brimming with high-touch surfaces — think door knobs, elevator buttons, garbage chutes, the front desk and mail room areas — Bogoch and Salt both stressed maintaining good hand hygiene, especially for people living in close proximity with what could be hundreds of others.

“It’s just important that people are mindful,” Bogoch said. “Think about what you may be touching on your way in or out of the building.”

Salt said she has been generally pleased with the steps taken by building managers to help ensure safer spaces for residents.

Not only have they shut off access to shared amenities, but some have also installed hand sanitizer dispensers in lobbies and increased the cleaning of high-traffic areas.

Salt said tenants and residents shouldn’t be afraid to ask about the cleanliness of their buildings, though.

“Work with management to make sure that they’re amping up or increasing frequency of cleaning and disinfection and potentially looking at what kinds of products they’re using for cleaning and disinfection because not everything is created equal,” she said. “That’s another way of helping to prevent transmission, increasing the frequency of cleaning.

“But just like any shared space, maintain your separation, keep your hands clean, keep your hands away from your eyes, mouth and nose, those are all important.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 27, 2020.

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press

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