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Welcome Back To The Office. Please Don't Touch Anything.03:26
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From inside the entrance to the Cambridge Innovation Center at 1 Broadway, Tim Rowe waves his hand over a sensor to open the door. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
From inside the entrance to the Cambridge Innovation Center at 1 Broadway, Tim Rowe waves his hand over a sensor to open the door. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

It's reopening week for some Massachusetts office buildings that have been closed for months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Occupancy is capped at 25% to promote physical distancing, and some companies are taking additional measures.

At the Cambridge Innovation Center, home to hundreds of Kendall Square startups, the main entrance now opens with a wave of the hand, thanks to sensors beside the doors.

One of founder Tim Rowe's chief objectives is to reduce the need to touch common surfaces — things like door handles and elevator buttons — which explains the small, individually wrapped gadget that awaits each employee and visitor in the lobby.

It resembles a flip-top lighter. But instead of a flame inside, there's a rubber tip for pressing buttons and tapping shared computer screens. And the cap holds a sponge that can be soaked in sanitizer.

Between uses, the tip gets a coating of sanitizer from the sponge. So, whenever someone touches a surface with the little gizmo, they're "part of the [office] cleaning regimen, as a user," Rowe explains.

CIC's no-contact door opener, which allows you to push or pull door handles and press elevator buttons without touching them. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
CIC's no-contact door opener, which allows you to push or pull door handles and press elevator buttons without touching them. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Temperature scanners ensure no one with a fever above 100.4 degrees reaches the bank of elevators that now hold only two passengers at a time.

Upstairs, in the center's workspace, doors open with foot or forearm pulls. The entrepreneurs who work here wear masks and can get all the way to their desk chairs — spaced at least 6 feet apart, of course — without touching any shared surfaces with their hands.

It's reassuring, in one way, but a little unnerving in another. The Cambridge Innovation Center was a pioneer of the coworking movement, which is all about bumping into people and sharing ideas. Maintaining the collegial spirit could be challenging in a time when rubbing elbows with fellow entrepreneurs is forbidden.

"Yeah, I think that's true," Rowe acknowledged, "but let's remember the period of time we're talking about. This is a very unique period of time. And I think for people to pull back and focus on digital and video-based meetings — and some meetings are in person but with safe spacing — we think that works."

It'll have to do for now.

Less than half a mile away, the biotechnology company Moderna is racing toward a potential coronavirus vaccine. Rowe is optimistic that the effort, or one of the dozens like it, will succeed so his normally high-touch office can go back to handshakes and packed networking nights.

But, for now, the goal here — and in many other offices — is to touch as little as possible.

This segment aired on May 27, 2020.

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Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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