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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

Biden admin grants Colonial waiver to ease fuel shortages

Fuel tanks at Colonial Pipeline Baltimore Delivery in Baltimore, Maryland on Monday. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration approved a temporary waiver of shipping requirements late Wednesday to help Colonial Pipeline transport fuel, as service resumes across the U.S. following a ransomware attack that that took it offline last week.

Why it matters: The century-old Jones Act requires ships to be built in the U.S. and crewed by American workers, but the waiver means foreign companies can transport gasoline and diesel to areas where there are fuel shortages.

Updated 40 mins ago - World

Over 70 dead in worst bombardments between Israel and Hamas for years

Smoke and flames rise after Israeli fighter jets conducted airstrikes in Gaza on May 13, 2021. Israeli forces said on May 12 they had killed a senior Hamas commander and bombed several buildings. Gaza's health ministry has said children are among the dead. Photo: Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At least 67 Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed in fighting between Israel's military and Hamas since Monday, per Reuters.

The big picture: The worst aerial exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas since 2014 continued into early Thursday. It come days after escalating violence in Jerusalem that injured hundreds of Palestinians and several Israeli police officers during protests over the planned evictions of Palestinian families from their homes.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Don McGahn agrees to closed-door interview with House panel on Russia report

Former White House counsel Don McGahn during a discussion at the NYU Global Academic Center in Washington, D.C., in 2019. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former White House counsel Don McGahn agreed Wednesday to speak with the House Judiciary Committee about former President Trump's alleged attempts to obstruct the Russia investigation — with certain conditions, per a court filing.

Why it matters: The agreement ends a two-year standoff after McGahn, a key player in former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, repeatedly refused to agree to a subpoena for testimony — resulting in the matter being taken to court.