On My Mind: The Coronavirus, Elevated

Jul 6, 2020

No matter what topic you can think of, someone, somewhere is an expert on that topic. It turns out that Lee Gray, of UNC Charlotte, is an expert on elevators.

“Not a day goes by that I don't think about elevators,” Gray says. “And my standard joke is either that means I really, really am an expert in this field or it's a pretty interesting cry for help.”

Had you thought much about elevators lately? I hadn’t. I don’t think I’ve been in a building with an elevator since March. But as the coronavirus ebbs, whenever that happens, and we slowly return to normal life, whatever that is, many of us will have to start using elevators again.

Gray is senior associate dean of UNCC’s College of Arts and Architecture. He also writes a column for Elevator World magazine. (It gives me no end of delight to tell you that there is such a thing as Elevator World magazine.) Gray has been thinking a lot about the issues with elevators in a world where the virus still looms.

“Tiny little rooms, because that's, of course, in many ways what they are,” he says. “And we are going now from perhaps just a socially awkward space that many of us find challenging in different ways, to a different kind of challenging space when we're in there, and everyone has a mask on.”

In this world with a virus, the normal elevator setup presents several problems.

You have to punch a button to get the elevator to come. Then you have to punch a button for your floor when you get inside. And the elevator is designed for lots of people to be in there at once.

Some of those things are easier to fix than others. Building management can limit the number of people who can get on an elevator at one time – maybe a maximum of four, or one in each corner. A no-talking rule would also help. If people stand silently in their corners, even if they’re not quite six feet apart, most elevator rides are so short that it’s unlikely to pose a big risk.

Hand sanitizer and regular cleanings might ease any problems with the buttons. There are also ways to give elevators better airflow – to clean the air in there and get fresh air in faster. In newer buildings, it’s easier to build those fixes in. But it’s expensive to retrofit older elevators. And Gray says it’s pretty much impossible to put bigger elevators in an old building.

So then the question becomes: How do people work in tall buildings? The Bank of America building uptown, for example, is 60 stories. I guess some of the Crossfit types who work there could hoof it to the top. But most working folks need the elevator. And that means long lines, staggered shifts, and a lot of uncomfortable rides.

“We cannot have the modern city with all of our high rise buildings without the elevator,” Gray says.

One of many, many, many problems that have to be solved before we start moving around normally again.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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