It has been half a year now since early reports began streaming in from a large city in China of strange and frightening symptoms sickening dozens of people — the foreshadowing of the worldwide pandemic that has engulfed our everyday life and caused earth-shattering tragedy. What have we learned in the last six months? While much remains unanswered, there are some things public health experts can say with certainty. According to The New York Times, there are now more than 100 teams around the world working nonstop to develop a vaccine for the virus, which has yet to show signs of going away anytime soon. Wearing cloth masks, maintaining social distancing, frequent hand-washing and avoiding physical contact with others are said to continue to be the go-to steps and “best hope of staying well,” the Times’ Denise Grady reports. “Be patient. We have to pace ourselves. If there’s such a thing as a disease marathon, this is it,” she concludes.
But patience is a virtue most folks are just plum running out of. So, it is heartening to see states starting to lift some restrictions as we enter this return-to-work phase of planned recovery, a phase we are finding to be full of challenges. Missing is a detailed playbook for exactly how it is to unfold. We may yearn to go back to the way things used to be, but it is becoming painfully obvious that the pieces of our life will not return to how they were in the past. We are entering a new pandemic-induced reality of work in America.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how businesses have begun to reimagine the workplace. At the time, there were no hard and fast guidelines to follow. That has now changed.
As reported by The New York Times and others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued sweeping new recommendations on the safest way for American employers to reopen their offices in a manner that best prevents the spread of the coronavirus. Gone are high-touch communal items such as coffee pots, water coolers, shared donuts, snacks and the like. Employees will now communicate with colleagues and visitors through a transparent shield whenever it is not possible to stay six feet apart. Established standards include regular hand-washing for at least 20 seconds; no fist bumps or handshakes; no face-touching; and daily temperature screening. Offices also need to improve ventilation by opening windows when possible and safe to do so.
Employers are also asked to consider thinning the ranks of those required to be physically present at work and to consider staggering worker hours when feasible. As Peter S. Kimmel, publisher of the facilities management resource FMLink, recently explained to the Huffington Post, translating the agency’s recommendations to reality does not reflect real-world situations. As an example, Kimmel suggested that a company with a 100,000-square-foot space on a floor of a building would have approximately 200 workers. “Now you may be housing 100 workers instead of 200 workers. Where do the other 100 go? Do we leave them at home?” he said. “That company is going to be paying rent as if they were housing 200 workers.”
It is also recommended that instead of employees taking mass transit or carpooling, employees should drive to work alone to avoid potential spread of the virus. This makes the huge assumption that every employee has a car. In a big city, some people rely solely on mass transit to get around. Such an action reverses decades of advice on commuting in general. The impact could be far-reaching in terms of traffic. As the Times points out, “Some (recommendations) border on the impractical, if not near impossible.”
A prime example of a “Mission Impossible” directive is elevator occupancy. Employers are being told to limit use and occupancy of elevators to maintain social distancing of at least six feet. As pointed out by NPR’s Lauren Weber, we are talking about reforms within a small box with poor ventilation that is a “minefield of touchable buttons and surfaces,” designed for quickly moving masses of people. It is further recommended that people face the elevator walls and not talk, ideally one person in each corner of the elevator, and that they carry tissues or toothpicks to use for pushing buttons. Meanwhile, people will be required to wait and wait, most likely huddling in the lobby.
This will create a significant logistical challenge for building managers and employers who have thousands of people to move within a single building. Let them take the stairs, you say? Another confined area with poor ventilation. Climbing 36 flights of stairs is not an option for most people, NPR notes. It is estimated that such a climb would take a person of average fitness up to 25 minutes. It is suggested that new technology will help manage these new challenges, but this will take time. Meanwhile, building owners are “terrified” about the long-term costs of keeping up their new rigorous cleaning regimens, says NPR. Hotels can be expected to have similar problems. In another blast from the past, we may soon see concierge-run elevators being reintroduced in hotels.
As restrictions are lifted and things change, we can expect that detailed guidance about navigating the particulars of everyday life will be hard to come by. If we are to remain safe during this risky transition, “it comes down to not just thinking about ourselves, but our whole communities,” Dr. Barbara Taylor, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, tells the Times.
“We are our brothers’ keepers,” she said