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The Commuting Conundrum: Staying Safe From Covid-19 While Getting to Work

May 20, 2020 | by Jo Cipolla
Reviewed by real estate expert Jonathan Wasserstrum

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic. As a result, schools closed, concerts and sporting events were canceled, large gatherings of people were banned or strongly discouraged, and many employees began working from home. According to a Gallup Poll from April 2020, 62% of working Americans worked from home come in at least part of the time during the COVID-19 outbreak. Some companies, such as Twitter, are keeping their offices intact but plan to allow their employees the choice to work remotely on an indefinite basis. But some businesses and employees are looking forward to returning to work in the office once again.

Offices are Re-opening. How can employees commute safely?

As most U.S. states and territories reopen their economies at varying speeds, prompting employees to resume working at their brick-and-mortar offices, business, employers, and employees face various challenges. One of the chief concerns as employees venture back to the office is transportation. How can commuters safely commute to the workplace? Especially in cities wherein much of the workforce relies on public transportation to get to work, such as New York City, this will become a challenge.

For example, in the NYC borough of Manhattan, 76% of commuters use the subway/PATH, rail, or bus to commute. Social distancing rules stipulate that people stay 6 feet apart from one another, but can this be done on public transit?

Let’s discuss some potential fixes for the transportation conundrum from the employer perspective and from the employee perspective.

What Businesses (Employers) Can Do to Make Commuting Safer

Returning to the office while prioritizing employee health and well-being may be a challenge, but it can be done, though it may look different than it did before. Many sources show that maintaining the recommended distance away from other people (6 feet) will be close to impossible to maintain on public transportation during peak hours unless major changes are made, according to Savills. Increasing the number of trains and implementing rules only goes so far because so many people need to get to work. “The only practical option is to limit the number of commuters to keep New Yorkers safe,” Kevin Kelly writes for Savills, a leading expert in commute and workforce strategy. Employers can help reduce the number of commuters in New York City and across the United States, especially during peak times.

Let some employees continue working remotely

Some employees may wish to continue working at home even when others begin returning to work, which will eliminate any risk associated with commuting for those employees. For example, employees who are at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications, those who provide care for or live with someone who is at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications, and those who are caring for sick family members may wish to continue working at home. If you decide to let some employees work remotely, be sure they have the equipment and training they require to work effectively from a distance.

Have your employees return to the office in phases

Most companies are planning to bring employees back to the office in phases to help prevent a second wave of the virus, according to the Lear Corporation Safe Work Playbook. When deciding who should come back first, take into account several factors.

  • Prioritize the return of employees who cannot work off-site.
  • Consider geographical location. Employees who can walk, bike, or easily drive to work will have an easier time commuting.
  • Consider delaying the return of those who need special accommodations because they’re at-risk for complications resulting from COVID-19 or are caring for children.
  • Be sure to treat your employees fairly, not providing special treatment based on rank.

Arrange shifts or staggered start times

Rush hour varies from city to city, but most people’s workday begins between 8 and 9 a.m. and ends between 5 and 6 p.m., creating two particularly congested times of day for public transportation. Consider staggering the workday so that some people come in at different times. For example, Savills indicated that if the morning commute time in Manhattan were staggered from 5-10 a.m. (and trains continued to run at peak frequency), many more commuters could travel to work at a safe distance. Depending on the type of work your business does, you may also consider offering night shifts for employees who are interested and able.

What Employees Can do to Make Commuting Safer

If you’ve spent the last few weeks (or months) working from home using Zoom for meetings, sending more emails than usual, and working on projects on your laptop with your dog or family members as unusual coworkers. You might be wondering what it will look like to start commuting to work again. Here are a few tips for staying safe during your journey, especially if you take public transportation.

Communicate with your employer

If you have concerns about commuting—if, for example, you are at high-risk for complications should you contract COVID-19—discuss your concerns with your employer. He or she may be able to allow you to continue working from home or offer another solution, such as a delayed start time to avoid rush hour.

If possible, walk or bike to work

If you’re fortunate enough to live within walking or biking distance and have the physical ability to do so, consider getting some exercise during your commute. If you rent a bike or e-scooter, remember to wash your hands after using it and before touching your face.

Maintain social distancing

If possible, stay at least six feet away from other passengers on public transit. If someone on the train happens to sneeze or cough, and the person is 6 or more feet away from you, the risk is likely low, says David Freedman, M.D., a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Wear a mask

The CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public settings where staying six feet away from others may be difficult, and that certainly applies to public transportation settings. You can make your own or order them online. Make sure your facemask stays secure against the sides of your face, covers your mouth and nose, includes multiple layers of material, and lets you breathe effectively. When you remove your mask, don’t touch your mouth or nose, and make sure you wash your hands immediately. Wash your face masks regularly in the washing machine.

Wash your hands

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces for 24 hours or several days, depending on the type of surface. If you touch a contaminated surface then touch your face, you could become ill. If you have to touch any surfaces while using public transportation, don’t touch your face until you can wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.

If you are sick, stay home except to get medical care

If you experience symptoms, please do not use public transportation. Stay home except to get medical care. Call your physician’s office and describe your symptoms to get professional medical advice regarding what to do next.


These guidelines are intended to create a starting point for businesses to help their employees commute safely to and from work. Abide by all local and national government and medical guidelines and obtain legal counsel when implementing a safe commuting plan for your business.

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