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How To Safely Take Elevators And Be In Other Confined Spaces During A Pandemic

As a general rule, don't take an elevator with more than two other people.
People stand on designated areas to ensure social distancing inside an elevator at a shopping mall in Surabaya, Indonesia. This is actually closer contact than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.
People stand on designated areas to ensure social distancing inside an elevator at a shopping mall in Surabaya, Indonesia. This is actually closer contact than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

We all know we should be practicing social distancing as much as possible to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. But in a lot of cases, avoiding all contact isn’t realistic: people still need to buy groceries, go to laundromats, visit doctors’ offices, and use other essential services. People working necessary jobs that require their physical presence still have to go into work.

So, how can people stay as safe as possible when they encounter people, particularly in confined spaces like elevators?

Avoid elevators with more than two other people

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the transmission of coronavirus is likely between people who are in within about two metres (or six feet) of each other.

Elevator sizes vary, but most don’t allow more than two or three people to maintain that distance from one another.

Give yourself extra time in case you have to take the stairs or wait for a less-crowded elevator

If you have the option, avoiding the elevator completely and taking the stairs is a good bet because it lets you avoid crowded spaces completely. But if not, wait until a less busy car comes by.

If you’re in an elevator with two other people and someone else tries to get on, calmly explain that they should wait for the next one. Be polite but firm, and try saying something along the lines of, “Sorry, we can’t safely fit more than three people in here. Do you mind waiting for the next one?”

Keep in mind that because fewer people can pile into an elevator these days, it will likely take you longer to get to where you’re going. So if possible, try to budget extra time into your schedule.

Stand two metres apart, and face away from each other

Once you’re in an elevator, maintain distance from the people around you. Some areas have started designating spaces in elevators.

A woman stands in an elevator with markers on the floor for social distancing measures in a shopping mall in Bangkok on March 20. 
A woman stands in an elevator with markers on the floor for social distancing measures in a shopping mall in Bangkok on March 20. 

While the directive to have everyone face away from one another is a good one, the six spaces in the elevator pictured above don’t appear to be big enough to be effective.

A photo from Toronto Public Health better illustrates social distancing techniques: the person in the middle is standing in front of the other two, so contact is less likely. Facing away from each other would make more sense, though.

Safe elevator etiquette during a pandemic.
Safe elevator etiquette during a pandemic.

Cover your cough or sneeze

This is true generally, but is especially important in a confined space: if you need to sneeze or cough, make sure to cover your face with your elbow and not your hand, as per Health Canada’s instructions.

Try not to touch the buttons with your hands ...

Many institutions with heavy traffic are sanitizing high-touch surfaces, but because of how many things our hands touch every day and how easy it is to inadvertently touch our faces, it’s still a good idea to avoid touch whenever possible. If you must touch an elevator button, use a sleeve or a part of clothing instead.

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris presses an elevator button with her elbow at the U.S. Capitol last week.
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris presses an elevator button with her elbow at the U.S. Capitol last week.

... But if you do, avoid touching your face

If you accidentally used your hand to press a button, avoid touching your face. We know, we know: that’s almost shockingly hard to avoid. But there are a number of ways to stop illicit face-touching, which start with just recognizing your own habits. You can do this! We believe in you!

Wash your hands afterwards

When you leave the elevator, wash your hands thoroughly, with soap and hot water, for at least 20 seconds. Hand-washing is one of the easiest and most effective ways to prevent transmitting the virus.

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