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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Will you step back into an elevator any time soon?

Why it matters: Tens of billions of dollars — and the future of cities around the country — rest on the answer to that question. So long as workers remain unwilling to take elevators, hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of office real estate will continue to go largely unused.

Where it stands: Office building landlords and tenants are busy working out how many people to allow in an elevator at a time — with the dual goals of conveying people to their cubicles and keeping them safe at work.

  • New York City's Department of Buildings has a COVID-19 task force, which has slashed in half the maximum capacity of all the elevators it oversees.
  • In practice, however, previous maximum capacity was generally so high that the new rule is unlikely to act as a real constraint.

The intrigue: The science of COVID-19 transmission in elevators is far from settled, but the consensus is that the risk is low.

  • "Most elevators are very well ventilated," Richard Corsi, the dean of the engineering school at Portland State University, tells Axios.
  • "The short duration of any exposure" helps to bring the risk down, Professor Ben Cowling of the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health told me.

Risk can be further reduced by implementing new rules:

  • Limiting capacity to no more than three or four people per car.
  • Ensuring that everybody wears a mask and doesn't speak.
  • Not pressing buttons with bare fingers.
  • Standing with one's face to the walls of the elevator rather than to the door.

Americans are still hesitant to get back into elevators, however.

  • A Twitter poll I ran this week this week (with 4,054 votes) showed 63% of respondents saying that they were not OK with using an elevator to get to work, even with masking and social-distancing policies in place.
  • That number rises to 71% for people who don't live in elevator buildings. (On the other hand, people who do live in elevator buildings are generally fine with also taking an elevator to work, with 61% saying they would do so.)

If many employees are unwilling to get into elevators, that helps to solve much of the social-distancing problem.

  • Other tactics to reduce elevator crowding include staggered arrival times and catered lunches (which reduce the lunchtime rush down and up).

Office landlords, however, are terrified that if most employees are unwilling to return to work, their tenants will downsize or abandon their leases entirely.

  • Commercial real estate loans have already seen a spike in default rates.
  • Ancillary businesses — like all those lunch spots near offices — are also suffering.

The bottom line: It's not clear what will make Americans comfortable with elevators. But if they don't get there, the near-term future of our cities looks grim.

Go deeper

GOP Rep. Clay Higgins says he has COVID for second time

Rep. Clay Higgins during a 2019 House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) Sunday evening that he and his wife have contracted COVID-19 for a second time and "this episode is far more challenging."

Driving the news: "Becca and I had COVID before, early on, in January 2020, before the world really knew what it was," he wrote in a Facebook post, confirming his son also has the coronavirus — which he described as a "biological attack weaponized virus."

Updated 1 hour ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

📺: The Olympic events to watch today; Olympics opening ceremony ratings plunge

🏊: Athlete spotlight — Katie Ledecky adds to Games career medals haul; Caeleb Dressel leads Team USA to gold.

🏀: U.S. Men's basketball suffers first Olympic loss since 2004

🤖: The robot Olympics

🚨: Heat wave brings scorching temperatures to Tokyo Olympics

🎤: Meet the new faces of NBC's Olympics coverage

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

2 hours ago - Sports

Olympics opening ceremony ratings fall to 33-year low

Wally Skalij /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Ratings for the Olympic Games opening ceremony were down 36% compared to 2016, according to preliminary numbers from NBC Universal. 

Why it matters: The figures for the Tokyo Games event mark the lowest audience for an Olympics opening ceremony event in over three decades, per Reuters.