Love ’em or hate ’em, skyways are a fact of life in the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The second-story corridors carry hundreds of thousands of workers and visitors each day between buildings that now are largely unpopulated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But those buildings may begin humming again this summer. And when they do, so will the skyways, according to building and public officials who are already working on reopening plans.
“I think the default position is that skyways are so critical to how downtown operates that we’ve got to find a way to make them work,” said Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. “Our take on it always has been, it’s there, it’s not going away.
“The skyway system is going to continue to function, and it’s important to our economy.”
In Minneapolis, the 9 miles of skyways are mostly owned by the buildings they serve. Since Gov. Tim Walz issued a statewide stay-home order on March 25, the large downtown office buildings have been only about 5 to 10% occupied, said Kevin Lewis, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Building Owners and Managers Association. Many of the skyways have either been closed or are operating on reduced hours.
But when the stay-home order is lifted — now set for Monday — and business as usual is allowed, the skyways also are likely to go back to their usual operation, both Cramer and Lewis said.
Public officials have left the Minneapolis skyway planning to the building owners, who have been having conversations for about a month about how to safely reopen the system. A spokesman for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey referred skyway questions to the Downtown Council, and Cramer said the governor’s office has not been involved in the discussions.
“My perception is — I think wisely — they’re not taking a regulatory, ‘You shall do this’ approach,” he said. “It’s more, ‘Businesses, you can open, but you’ve got to do it safely.’ ”
In St. Paul, the 5 miles of skyways are regulated by the city. They’ve been operating on reduced hours since April 9, when Mayor Melvin Carter issued an executive order closing them at 7 p.m. daily instead of midnight. Carter’s order is set to expire Tuesday.
Based on recent conversations with building owners and the city’s Skyway Governance Advisory Committee, there are no current plans for limitations on skyway use once Carter’s order expires, a city spokeswoman said.
In Minneapolis, building owners, managers and tenants are taking pains to make sure downtown workers will feel safe using the skyways, Lewis said.
“Our members are working on very descriptive signage as to suggestions on social distancing, and soon there will be a number of sanitation stations throughout [the skyways] in larger numbers,” he said.
The downtown office buildings are likely to reopen in phases, Cramer said, and that will affect the levels of skyway traffic. The task will require extensive coordination between buildings and their owners, because “there’s no entity that can issue an edict on the skyways.”
Reopening “is going to be a slow process, to be sure,” he added. “I think it’s going to be wrapped more into this question about how buildings are going to be managed to give tenants, and clients of tenants, confidence that they’re going to be safe.
“It’s just a practical reality,” Cramer said. “Buildings are not going to have workers come back if they’re not going to feel safe in the building.”
There’s one silver lining to the skyway planning, Lewis added: “Thank God this is not taking place in December, January and February.”