Elevator queues, mandatory masks and staggered start times may await Toronto’s office workers when they start venturing back to North America’s second-largest financial centre.

These are among the measures Cadillac Fairview Corp. Ltd. is pursuing as the commercial property firm prepares for a “measured” return of workers to downtown buildings. The company is landlord to some of Canada’s largest banks as the owner of office towers such as TD Centre and RBC Centre.

“It’s going to be a gradual but steady climb back to normalcy,” Sal Iacono, Cadillac Fairview’s executive vice-president of operations, said in an interview.

Ontario has been easing restrictions on business as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 2,000 people in the province, finally eases.

Office workers should brace for dramatic changes, with numerous precautions to protect them and the public. Cadillac Fairview, owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan which oversees 70 properties in Canada including the Toronto Eaton Centre shopping mall, is just one of the city’s large landlords adopting new measures to make returning to work safe.

Elevators will have limits of four people and Cadillac Fairview plans to add thin anti-microbial film over the buttons. It’s looking to introduce digital apps so people can schedule their elevator rides instead of waiting in line, Iacono said, “so that you know with certainty that you’re not going to have to wait a long time in order to be able to access your floors.”

Shift Work

The company is also working with tenants on ways to stagger start and end times for employees to avoid crowding in lobbies and common areas.

“In order to be able to allow the maximum number of people to come into those office buildings, we’re going to have to change our behaviors for a period of time,” Iacono said.

Building occupants at Cadillac Fairview office properties will be required to wear non-medical face masks or coverings in elevators and they’ll be “strongly encouraged” to wear them in common areas, including the underground PATH network that links downtown office buildings in Canada’s largest city.

Commercial landlords including Brookfield Properties and Oxford Properties Group have already put down social distance markings and signage throughout downtown. But the many bankers, investment managers, accountants and lawyers who typically populate Toronto’s cluster of skyscrapers likely haven’t seen them yet due to weeks of working from home.

In the depths of the pandemic shutdown the number of people in office buildings were no more than five per cent to 10 per cent of normal levels, Iacono estimated. He got a first-hand look at how the city’s core has become a ghost town a couple weeks ago during a visit to his office by the shuttered Eaton Centre to sign some paperwork.

“The mall under normal circumstances has 53 million people a year going through it, so to see Toronto Eaton Centre as empty as it was on the day that I was there was a little dystopian,” he said. “I took the elevator up to my office and we had two people on our floor.”

Even with restrictions easing, Iacono doesn’t anticipate a rush back to the office. Ontario has kept schools and daycares closed, which means a slow return for many workers.

In markets that have reopened, Iacono is seeing between 15 per cent and 30 per cent of office workers returning at first, with that percentage increasing over time.

“I try to dispel the notion that on the first day that the government lifts restrictions in the market that everybody shows up back at the office all at the same time like any normal day pre-COVID,” he said. “That’s not going to be the case.”