Our Safe Return to Work Summit was a huge success. We brought together over 1,000 professionals, both in person and virtually, to discuss how to safely being employees back to the workplace and reignite the economy. Our panel of industry experts educated attendees on measures to safeguard employees on public transportation and office spaces. A recording of the Safe Return to Work Summit can be accessed below.

We received a high volume of attendee questions during registration, due to time restraints, we were unable to answer all of those during the event. Below you’ll find responses from our speaker panel addressing all remaining questions.

Transit Safety Questions

How will METRA ensure that it is medically safe to ride?  How are they tracking riders who may have tested positive for COVID-19 and may have exposed other riders?

Metra is leading the nation as a transit agency that is doing everything possible to make sure our trains are safe to ride:

As discussed at The Safe Return to Work Summit last week, studies have shown NO correlation between public transit use and infection rates. At Metra during the entire pandemic, with over 5.4 million rides on board, we have not had one case of COVID-19 contact traced back to our trains. Here’s why…

  • Trains are cleaned, sanitized and disinfected at least once a day but usually more frequently.
  • We are following state and local orders that require everyone to wear a mask, and we are reinforcing that message with plenty of signage and recorded announcements.
  • We have instructed our conductors to make frequent announcements during train trips about the mask mandate, both over the PA and when they enter cars to validate fares. And when conductors see someone without a mask, they are instructed to remind them about the mandate and offer them a free mask if they don’t have one.
  • We are also requiring physical distancing and making sure our trains and schedules have ample room for everyone to spread out. We’ve created a dashboard at metrarail.com/dashboard to give customers a tool to monitor trains for crowded conditions (there currently are none).
  • We use hospital-grade MERV 13 filters on our cars, and the air is replaced every four minutes – better than the CDC recommends.
  • We recently approved a contract for a new three-stage filtration and purification process that will use ultraviolet light, electrical fields and stronger filters to create the safest possible environment for customers. The new system will be the equivalent to or better than MERV 17 or HEPA standards.

All of our employees commute using public transportation, and they have also expressed that their biggest concern on returning is riding crowded public transportation. What is or will be different on Metra to address these concerns?

Right now, there is plenty of room on our trains to spread out and maintain physical distance from other riders. We will maintain that ability to spread out as long as we can by adding cars to trains and trains to the schedules to stay ahead of demand and minimize crowding. We are aiming for trains that are no more than about half full: we are recommending (and have posted signs encouraging) one passenger per two-seater on the lower level and one passenger per every other seat on the upper level. We’ve also created a Ridership Dashboard to help riders know how crowded trains have been. The dashboard is at metrarail.com/dashboard. We hope/expect that as ridership grows and space become more limited, more and more riders will have been vaccinated and distancing will become less necessary.

I’m wondering if Metra will begin enforcing its requirement for passengers to wear masks? I rode the train a couple of weeks ago and notice several passengers without masks.  When I asked the conductors what Metra’s policy was on enforcement, I was told Metra doesn’t allow the conductors to ask passengers to put on masks due to a concern over possible confrontation. I traded emails with Metra and confirmed the conductors were correct.

The wearing of a mask or face covering on Metra trains has been required since May 1, 2020, when Gov. Pritzker issued his executive order 2020-32. President Biden’s order, which made violations a federal civil offense, reinforced that requirement, prompting us to update our messaging to reflect that wearing a mask is now also a federal mandate.

Our approach towards both mandates follows the recommendations and guidance of both the CDC and TSA – to seek compliance with the mandates through information and education, not through confrontation with violators, especially physical confrontation, which could possibly endanger our employees. This is an approach that also has been adopted by many other transit agencies across the country.

We inform and educate riders about this mandate in a variety of ways. We have posted numerous signs in stations and inside our train cars reminding riders that masks are required for the entirety of the trip. We have instructed our conductors to make frequent announcements during train trips about the mask mandate, both over the PA and when they enter cars to validate fares. And when conductors see someone without a mask, they are instructed to remind them about the mandate and offer them a mask if they don’t have one. We reinforce that message via our website and social media channels.

It is our experience that this educational and informational approach has been very effective. The vast majority of our customers understand the mandate and its role in promoting public health

Train ridership is still low, how will Metra handle the cleanliness and social distancing once trains are back to “normal” ridership?

Our approach toward cleaning will not change: Trains are cleaned, sanitized and disinfected at least once a day but usually more frequently. As for social distancing, we will maintain the ability to spread out as long as we can by adding cars to trains and trains to the schedules to stay ahead of demand and minimize crowding. We are aiming for trains that are no more than about half full: we are recommending (and have posted signs encouraging) one passenger per two-seater on the lower level and one passenger per every other seat on the upper level. We’ve also created a Ridership Dashboard to help riders know how crowded trains have been. The dashboard is at metrarail.com/dashboard.

Is Metra going to wait until demand picks up to offer more express trains or schedule more express trains in hopes demand will follow?

We are monitoring ridership on a daily basis so we can adjust schedules as necessary before any crowding occurs. Our intention is to stay ahead of the demand curve as long as possible by adding cars to trains and adding trains to schedules, including express trains where we think they are needed/desired. Stay tuned.

Will Metra be working with local municipalities to offer free parking at the suburban public parking lots to help encourage riders?

Probably not, and here’s why: the municipalities use those fees to cover their maintenance and operating costs for those lots, and those costs are ongoing. The municipalities, meanwhile, have also taken financial hits due to COVID.

Will Metra consider rapid transit type service on the Electric Line (two to three trains per hour) to better serve the economically underdeveloped areas of Chicago’s South Side and South Suburbs?

Metra is currently working with Cook County and Pace on the Fair Transit South Cook Pilot. The three-year pilot project, funded by Cook County, aims to improve transit service and lower costs for the residents of the south side of Chicago, south suburban Cook and north Will Counties. We started the pilot in January with lower fares – all riders on those two lines are paying the reduced fare rate, normally only for seniors, K-12 students and other special classes. That was a step that we could take immediately, despite the impact of COVID. Changes in service, however, have been put off for now, but the intention is to boost service eventually. We would be able to do that because Cook County will be subsidizing the added cost. As of today, the Electric and Rock Island lines have more service than any other line.

An important leg of the Metra commute to downtown is the last mile connection from the Metra stations to the specific workplace. A large portion of this is supported by shuttles operated privately other than CTA. What work is being done to ensure the safe return of these services?

While Metra has been in communication with the business community about our ridership and schedules, the businesses that operate those shuttles have a better handle on the demand for them, since they know how many of their employees are returning to the office, and when.

Building/Office Safety Best Practices

What advice is available related to the use of enclosed phone rooms? Our facility has quite a few of them and we’ve had them locked since last March since there’s no practical/affordable way to keep them cleaned after each use.

Use of portable air filters is a good solution for an enclosed space. While surface transmission is not perceived to be a significant risk, use of hands-free speakerphone devices or mobile devices (rather than shared phone handsets) could also be implemented.
– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

Any guidelines/advice around introducing food and beverage back into offices (coffee, vending, etc.)?

Data suggesting surface contact risk is minimal applies to kitchen and countertop appliances including coffee makers.  Make sure to avoid family-style food with shared utensils and large gatherings in confined space for team lunches and other events.
– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

Will limiting occupancy in elevators increase wait times? If so, what strategies can be implemented to mitigate this problem?

It depends on several factors.  What is the elevator car size? What are the car speeds?  What generation is the controls software?  Most elevators designed and installed in the past 10 to 15 years should be able to perform well at 4-person population limitations.  Destination dispatch elevators would enable social distancing with no discernible impacts to wait times and queuing.  For buildings with older components (slower car speeds and smaller cars that cannot accommodate 4 people), work with your building management team and tenants to find ways to offset arrival times. For instance, you could stagger one-half of your employees to arrive between 8 and 8:30 a.m. and the other half to arrive between 8:30 and 9 a.m. to limit negative impacts.
– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

In Buildings with sealed windows or ones that cannot open, what options / laws can we work with buildings to allow us to get these windows being able to open a bit – safety implications, etc.

It is not a good idea to open windows in a building that was designed mechanically for closed or sealed windows. The preferred option is to increase both the amount of outside air delivered via the mechanical system and the filtration performance.
– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

% capacity for office, when to wear a mask when there are just limited people in the office.

Tenants should follow municipal guidelines for capacity. Many offices are requiring facial coverings “anytime someone isn’t at their desk” meaning meeting rooms, corridors, and other common areas. All buildings should require facial coverings in building common areas.

– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

What ‘hardware’ is most important? Air purifiers, UV Lights, Hand Sanitizers, Temp checks?

Most important is employers preventing anyone with an illness from coming to office. Following that are:

  1. Basic sanitation – regular hand washing and wear facial coverings
  2. Increased ventilation rates
  3. Filtration
  4. Talk with your property management team about other policies, procedures, and emerging technologies, including bipolar ionization, that may be in place.

– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

Any suggestions for ways in which tenant businesses can best communicate with our building on COVID related safety issues?

Ask your property manager for a conversation and come to the table with the questions that most impact your business.  Expect that there will be an iterative, ongoing dialogue between owners/managers and tenants.  You may consider hiring consultants to help you plan your re-entry including:

  • Commercial interior design company
  • MEP design consultant
  • Workplace strategy consultant

– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

Any recommendations on desk/seat planning and desk reservation systems?

An interior design architect and a MEP consulting firm would be the best resource to find the systems/solutions right for your company.

– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

‘Pause Procedure’: What happens if someone falls ill that was is the office, hasn’t gotten test results yet. Cleaning requirements, close office temporarily, alert those in office, etc.

The CDC, along with state and local health departments, have defined what constitutes “high risk contact” to an infected individual (within 6’ for 15 minutes or more is the rule of thumb).  Those identified with high-risk contact should follow recommended quarantine guidelines.

Electrostatic cleaning of the entire office, with a 24-hour office “pause” to allow people to be more comfortable returning is what we are seeing as a standard. 

– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

From a building perspective, once we are notified of the suspected exposure or confirmed case, we work closely with each tenant, our owners and janitorial providers to assist with contact tracing and help identify the best cleaning solution and communication strategy based on all available facts.

According to JLL’s article, “Landlords race to improve air quality in buildings”, landlords and property managers are racing to implement best practices around indoor air quality in a bid to retain and attract tenants, involving everything from HVAC systems to particle monitoring technology. This is one-way companies are responding to be more responsive instead of reactive.

Most buildings should have scenario-based options already established with their clients to be able to offer recommendations to tenants based on guidelines and best practices in areas we are able to assist. Office closures are up to the individual company / occupier.

– Heather Spearman, JLL

How do you transition from a 100% in office environment to a hybrid shared space work schedule?

An interior design firm can assist with physical layout changes required to enable a free-address shared workspace strategy.  Any of the major commercial real estate brokerage/tenant representation firms will have globally sourced data that can shortcut some of the fact-finding required.  The most important step is to determine which functional roles are most required to be in the office, and which are less critical. 

– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

Per JLL’s Shaping the future of work for a better world report, companies should address these six questions when identifying the best way to transition to a hybrid shared space work schedule:

1. How is work done?

2. What the preferences of the workforce?

3. What is the size and location of the workplace?

4. What is the right mix and balance for the hybrid model?

5. How can we transform and still maintain our culture?

6. How can we enable resiliency for the future?

Property teams can help with some best practices and ideas. There are also third-party certifications tenants can obtain to help confirm how thorough their re-entry protocol is based on best practices such as certification through the International Well Building Institute (IWBI).

– Heather Spearman, JLL

If you create a hybrid model, how do you plan to monitor that employees are actually coming in on the days they are scheduled without micro-managing?

Some companies have an online “reservation” system linked to their visitor management software that works much in the same way as guest registration – meaning the “appearance” is confirmed once the employee swipes their badge.  Some companies have a weekly “signup” that requires employees to state their intentions for the subsequent week.  Nearly every company can spot-check with the data from their access control system for their suite (keycard swipe logs).  Check with your property manager to determine what options are available and work best for your company.

– Anthony Scacco, Riverside Investment and Development

According to JLL’s Shaping the future of work for a better world report there is a growing importance of the need for human connection with 50% of employees in favor of a hybrid working environment and 70% finding the office environment is more conducive to team building and management support. Practically speaking, keycard systems or implementing an office registration system can aide in monitoring employee attendance without micromanaging.

– Heather Spearman, JLL

Disclaimer ©2020 Jones Lang LaSalle IP, Inc. All rights reserved. All information contained herein is from sources deemed reliable; however, no representation, warranty or guarantee is made to the accuracy thereof or results. The information is created to reduce but not eliminate the risks of spreading infectious disease and viruses. There is no guarantee that implementing the suggestions will decrease or eliminate the risks of spreading infectious disease and viruses. The information is merely a suggestion and should be implemented at the sole discretion of each individual.