Cities with mass transit have an extra barrier to reopening business

Maybe part of this problem will be solved by disinfecting the subway cars and buses every day, but the real difficulty with mass transit is that it transports lots of people in a small space. It’ll be impossible to be certain that someone near you doesn’t have COVID-19, symptomatic or not. Wearing a mask and using Purell may simply not be enough assurance for those who fear the coronavirus could be fatal for them or someone they love.

Biggest Hurdle to Bringing People Back to the Office Might Be the Commute

Companies planning how to return workers to skyscrapers, office campuses warn of difficulties in large cities

People wait on a crowded subway platform in New York City in 2018.PHOTO: LANE/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

ByChip Cutter Updated April 27, 2020 2:37 pm ET

As corporate executives plan how to safely bring employees back to work in the office, a thorny issue has arisen over which they have no control: public transportation.

The mass transit systems that allowed some of the world’s most densely populated financial capitals to grow and flourish for a century, including New York City and Tokyo, are emerging as a major concern because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Challenges with commuting could keep offices in those locations shut for longer than other places where people can more easily drive to work, human resources and real-estate executives say.

Companies are starting to consider alternatives to mass transit, such as company car allowances, private bus services and leasing smaller office space in suburban locations closer to where many workers live.

“Extremely large companies might offer to subsidize people’s purchases of private vehicles or subsidize rental cars,” said Lindsay Burke, co-chair of the employment practice at law firm Covington & Burling LLP.

To avoid putting workers through a public commute, some companies are considering leases to open smaller satellite locations, said Scott Rechler, chief executive of real-estate investment firm RXR Realty. He is getting calls from office tenants in Manhattan looking for space in the borough of Queens and Westchester County, where rents are cheaper and many employees have cars.

Mr. Rechler decided to open smaller spaces for his own employees after running a ZIP Code analysis on RXR’s New York area workforce. He plans to launch satellite offices in Brooklyn, Long Island City, Uniondale and Westchester, with the goal of reducing the number of people using public transit.

Some employees say they fear using public transportation because they might come in contact with a fellow passenger infected with Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and they won’t be able to avoid people who refuse to follow state or local mandates to wear masks or other face coverings in public.

The pandemic could significantly alter the way many companies operate, with more employers willing to embrace work-at-home arrangements long after offices are reopened. Already, some executives have said they would work differently going forward.

Anaplan Inc., an enterprise software company with employees in San Francisco, London and Tokyo, will soon hold focus groups to ask workers how they feel about returning to the office and what their transportation options are, said Marilyn Miller, the company’s chief people officer.

On the Ground in Germany as It Slowly Reopens for Business
Certain factories and shops resumed work as Germany took its first steps out of the coronavirus lockdown. WSJ’s William Boston reports from Berlin, where bars and restaurants remain closed. Photo: Peter Juelich/Bloomberg News

“There’s a whole series of things that have to be thought through before they even get to the front door of the office,” she said of the company’s plans to reopen. Those employees who are more dependent on buses, trains and subways may choose to work from home longer than employees who are less dependent on public transportation, Ms. Miller said. The company also has offices in cities including Minneapolis and Plano, Tex.

Once inside the workplace, social distancing can be maintained through one-way hallways, limiting elevator use to one person at a time and closing corporate cafeterias and providing boxed lunches instead, HR and real estate planners say. The more fundamental issue that could restrict reopening in a place such as New York City is “Can people even get to work?” said Mary Good, chief people officer of Squarespace Inc.

Vehicles on a nearly empty road during rush hour in Southeast Portland.PHOTO: MORIAH RATNER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

For weeks, Squarespace executives have been analyzing floor plans and meeting on video calls to create a detailed office-by-office plan to bring workers back. The technology company has locations in New York City, Portland, Ore., and Dublin, Ireland. Dublin, for instance, has had fewer cases of Covid-19 and could allow businesses to reopen sooner.

Some U.S. offices are highly reliant on public transit, Ms. Good said. New York’s sprawling subway system moved more than 8.6 million riders on a typical weekday before the pandemic, and Portland’s aboveground light rail lines connect that city’s major neighborhoods.

Some companies are considering the idea of setting up private van or bus services. NewYork-Presbyterian, one of New York’s largest private health-care systems, is using private coach buses to run about 30 routes around the city and surrounding areas, allowing essential medical workers at its hospitals to bypass the subway and commuter trains. Capacity is capped at 50 percent on each bus to ensure distancing, and a cleaning person scrubs interior surfaces after every trip, said Joe Ienuso, who runs the hospital system’s facilities and real estate. Other staffers were offered free parking in lots adjacent to hospitals or discounts on car rentals and moped sharing services.

Debbie Spero, a manager of sales and new business development for a staffing and consulting firm in Manhattan, takes the train from her Upper West Side apartment to midtown. She said she’s concerned about being able to keep 6 feet away from other riders in a subway car and worried that people may not wear masks.

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“Do I trust people in the subway? Absolutely not,” she said. “On the other hand, what are my options for getting to my office? Not so many.”

Gary Frey, an executive coach and head of business development for a public accounting firm in Charlotte, N.C., said he is eager to return to work because he misses the camaraderie of his colleagues. His car commute takes less than 20 minutes.

“I’m fortunate. I live fairly close-in,” he said, adding that if he had to deal with public transit in another city, he might feel differently. “The subway would give me pause.”

—Konrad Putzier and Lauren Weber contributed to this article.

Write to Chip Cutter at chip.cutter@wsj.com

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