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Business Response to COVID-19 and the Building Code

Note: this post was originally published to Kilo Lima Code Community . Check out this engaging community here.

Response to COVID-19 has been a huge undertaking for most businesses: screening staff and customers, revising operations and even business plans, maintaining spatial separation, upgrading sanitation schedules, controlling access points, the list goes on. The intent of this article is by no means to criticize or judge the business decisions of others in response to a pandemic. This article serves only to generate discussion regarding potential code implications of business responses in light of COVID-19 and how to best safeguard the public.

Since the onset of COVID19, I’ve noticed many businesses large and small reducing the number of available entrances and exits in order to control customer numbers and circulation.. I’ve also navigated the ”new norm” of labyrinths of one-way aisles and check-out corrals demarked by arrows and 2m spacing stickers. However, I didn’t think much about the role of architecture and buildings engineering in COVID-19 response efforts until I came across an article by Rick Quirouette proposing potential architectural solutions to schools reopening safely. Amidst ever-evolving public health orders and best-practices, is the building code still getting the consideration it needs in order to safeguard the public? Are some businesses unknowingly making decisions that may impact life safety in case of emergency?

There are a number of variables that impact the required quantity of exits for a building: use, occupant load, size, travel distance to exits, presence of fire compartments, presence of sprinklers, etc. For some buildings, the reduced building capacity as determined by public health orders may allow for a reduction in exits, so long as all other variables are considered. Are at least 50% of entrances still accessible? Are maximum allowable distances to exits maintained? And most importantly: will employees or customers know where to go in case of emergency?

I’ve seen some businesses where there’s simply a sign on the door asking customers not to use it or identifying it as “entrance only”. I’ve seen other businesses where alternate doors are locked or physical barriers such as shelves make the doors inaccessible. Perhaps the business owner determined that the door was no longer required by code; perhaps the business owner expects that customers will know to exit through the “entrance” door in case of emergency. But is the business owner correct in assuming the customer will know what to do?

In case of emergency, we are taught to seek out our nearest exit. It may be identifiable by a door, an exit sign over a door, or an exit sign identifying the direction of the nearest door. Now, imagine that there is a fire and you follow the exit signs only to find that they lead to a door blockaded by a wall of water jugs. Will you have time to find another door? Will children or the elderly know that they can exit through the “entrance” door in case of emergency and amidst the confusion that might ensue? What if the door is locked?

Even if exit signs are removed at exits that are closed, there may still be customers that act out of habit. In the same way that it may be your natural response to stop at a green traffic light that has for 20 years been a stop sign, you may travel to the exit that you are most familiar with only to find that it is not available.

I think that with a mild degree of common sense, most customers will know that one way aisles should not impact their travel path to the nearest exit. But what about customers that get caught in lengthy checkout corrals?

Worse of all – what if a business owner removes a necessary barrier-free exit?

What business responses to COVID-19 have you observed that make you wonder about building code implications?


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