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When people return downtown for work, how will they feel about the skyways?

Like elevators, the skyways seem worrisome in terms of COVID-19. All those people packed in a small space.

Before the pandemic, 285,000 people used the nearly 10-mile Minneapolis system daily. Even if you cut that in half, that’s two Target Fields fully packed.

I predict that using the skyways will strike the cautious as unwise, especially at first. Eventually, though, people won’t think twice about it.

As downtown gradually reopens, people who might have used the skyways will take to the streets, because the streets seem safer — the sidewalks are broad, the space is less confined and there’s fresh air and sunlight rather than artificial illumination.

Mask-wearing will probably be less prevalent on the sidewalk, though. That might unnerve the cautious. You can bet masks will be ubiquitous in the skyways. Masks are currently required inside businesses, schools and other gathering places.

But it can be difficult to social-distance in a skyway. The widest skyway is 30 feet across. Is that enough? The people who seem to be studying strangers with mental tape measures will tut-tut at those who walk three abreast.

And then there are the doors.

Most skyways have automatic doors that whoosh open when you approach, but the oldest ones still require you to grab a handle and tug. Since no one opens doors with their hands anymore, this means you’ll have to catch a closing door with your foot, use your sleeve, wear gloves or just bite the bullet and touch it, disinfecting afterward.

If you took a certain quick walk to your favorite lunch spot, you might be inclined to take a different route that has only automatic doors.

For the first few weeks, anyway.

If you were to enter the skyway system now, you’d see signs at most of the building entrances. They’re not uniform; each building has its own. While they’re certainly well intentioned, they’re useful only to people who’ve been under a rock for the past three months.

A sign at the skyway entrance to U.S. Bank Plaza gets right to the point. In big red letters, it says “Individuals SHOULD NOT enter the building if ” and then, in smaller letters, “They are experiencing any symptoms of illness.”

That seems a bit broad. “Especially,” it adds, “a cough or respiratory illness.” It’s accompanied by a picture of someone coughing into the crook of their arm, with a slash through it.

Capella Tower has a huge sign with pictures that list the symptoms of COVID-19, along with the flu and the common cold, so you can figure out what you do or do not have. Little pictures advise you to sneeze into the crook of your elbow and wash your hands. It presents a lot of information, and does so cleanly.

Canadian Pacific Plaza has a sign that says “How to Practice Social Distancing in the Workplace,” and includes the suggestions to “Keep your distance — about six feet. No handshakes or hugs.” “Wash your hands.” And “Avoid crowds. Avoid crowded elevators.”

I wonder how long those signs will be up. And how long until they’re just another warning label everyone ignores.

Some of buildings downtown have more than just skyway signs. Capella Tower has stickers on the sidewalk that tell you which door to use, and rope lines to channel you to the proper door. Like other buildings, decals on the floor tell you how close to stand to the information desk.

All of these things look like impositions of a new reality that will never go away, but in the end they’ll be white noise.

Someday, we’ll be back at work again. The city streets and skyways will be humming. We’ll be able to walk past the dire warnings without giving them a second thought. That’s the best case scenario.

Worst case, there’ll be no point in rerouting your lunchtime skyway walk to avoid doors with handles because there will be no restaurants left to visit.

James Lileks • 612-673-7858