Earlier this month we celebrated Southern California’s great air quality — with many caveats — but now, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, it’s “Very Unhealthy” in some spots, even though we still have widespread shutdowns.
As you can see, as of midafternoon on April 29, people living in Rancho Cucamonga experienced “Very Unhealthy” (purple) air, whereas people in Santa Clarita and Corona had “Unhealthy” (red) air, followed by air that was “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” (orange) in San Bernardino and Ontario.
Much of Los Angeles and Santa Monica was “Moderate” (yellow), while those in Long Beach seem blessed with the best air, at the moment.
“When we have these warm heat spells in April or May, it’s not unusual to see some higher ozone levels,” said Philip Fine, deputy executive officer at South Coast AQMD for the Planning and Rules Division.
As it heats up we’re starting to get a clearer picture of our pollution problem.
That’s because the heat bakes emissions from planes, ships, construction sites, and cars that are all still operating, and turns them into smog. That’s why air quality tends to be worse during the hottest parts of the day.
It’s too early to tell exactly how widespread of an impact the shutdown is having on all sources of emissions (there are many). Fine estimates that there’s been a downtick of roughly 20% to 30% of traffic across the region.
It’s an interesting real-life emissions experiment that seems to make clear, if we want consistently clean air, that we’re going to need to go much further than a few electric cars and trucks on the road.
“We’ll be studying this probably for years to come,” said Fine.
Air quality should improve if emissions fall or we have a windy day that clears everything out.
Coyotes are roaming empty campsites. Deer are grazing on empty fields. Rivers are rushing as the ice melts.
Yosemite National Park is virtually empty of humans.
For weeks now, wildlife has been allowed to move freely about the park since officials closed the mountains and valleys to humans to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I can go for a run around a meadow and see deer and coyotes and hear the red wing blackbirds…and listen to the river from my bedroom window,” said Breezy Jackson, director of UC Merced’s Yosemite Field Station, where scientists normally conduct research and teach classes year-round. “I feel incredibly fortunate and well-placed to shelter the storm.”
Jackson has lived alone with her husband, Paul, in one of the station’s seven homes since stay-at-home orders took effect in March. A wildlife biologist who normally would be working with dozens of scientists, keeps watch on the site as a caretaker while her colleagues stay away.
Along with some residents and park rangers, Jackson is one of the few humans to stay inside the park since the shutdown.
“I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility,” Jackson said. “I get to enjoy the park with relatively few people around and be a steward of this place.”
Yosemite is usually a busy place. Last year, 4.5 million people visited Yosemite, ranking it at the National Park Service’s fifth most-visited park in the country.
Overcrowding also has been an increasing challenge, with hours long waits to enter the park. A normal day on an April weekend might draw 10,000 people.
But now, Yosemite’s empty, harkening back to an earlier time before humans invaded it.
For weeks since the park closed, Yosemite park rangers have posted videos on social media showing animals seeming to enjoy life without humans, wandering freely through campsites and on roads where normally they would find cars, hikers and danger.
The Yosemite Convervancy’s webcams have shown their online visitors deer and coyotes scampering through empty campsites, and bears enjoying open country. The nearly 85,000 webcam views in March doubled those from January and February. Clicks take viewers to Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America; Half Dome; El Capitan; and the High Sierra.
“At any time of year, it’s fun to see Yosemite remotely from your house,” said Frank Dean, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, which funds grants from donations to restore trails and habitat, protect wildlife and provide education programs. “You can get an actual live shot of what Yosemite is like – has it just snowed or is there a beautiful sunset.”
The “rewilding,” Dean said, is fun to see. Animals are reverting to their natural diets, not eating scraps.
In the weeks without humans, “roadkill” is down. Coyotes, squirrels and other animals aren’t being struck by cars, Jackson said.
“I’ve seen tons of wildlife lately, lots of coyotes,” Jackson said. “It feels like the animals are more present. There are a lot of deer right now because the grass is coming up. They seem completely at peace.”
Trash is also down, especially the toilet paper people have used and discarded, and left for ravens to unravel, Jackson said.
When the park will reopen is unknown, and when her colleagues will return is unclear.
Just last week, Mariposa County, where Yosemite is located, reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 infection.
“When we do allow research, what will that be like?” she said. “It’s hard to imagine the future.”
As coronavirus spreads across the country, it’s hitting certain demographic groups disproportionately hard, and air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest.
COVID-19 is riskiest for people who have underlying health conditions such as asthma. And the list of conditions that can make the respiratory virus more deadly closely overlaps with the kinds of conditions made worse by exposure to air pollution.
All of Maricopa County experiences air pollution. But busier streets and topography that causes pollution to settle contribute to even dirtier air in south and west Phoenix. And residents of those heavily polluted neighborhoods are primarily Latino or African American.
“Latinos and communities of color, in Arizona, but across the country are disproportionately impacted by respiratory issues related to contamination and pollution and there’s so much history that leads to that,” Dent said.
Decades of discriminatory housing practices, for example, meant people of color in Phoenix were very limited in which parts of the city they could live.
Darshan Karwat is an aerospace engineer at ASU. His research gives a score to Phoenix neighborhoods based on access to services and environmental factors.
“Research has shown over decades that when communities are burdened with one thing, they’re probably burdened with a lot of different things,” Karwat said.
Karwat’s research shows correlations between neighborhoods’ poverty levels, percentage of minority residents, and pollution levels. And those correlations appear to have health implications. High-poverty Phoenix neighborhoods see more asthma hospitalizations.
Dr. Joanna Andujar is a pediatrician with Mountain Park Health’s clinic in West Phoenix’s Maryvale neighborhood. She sees those effects firsthand.
“When the air quality gets worse we do see more kids coming in with an exacerbation of asthma,” Andujar said.
As coronavirus spreads, its impact on different communities has been similarly uneven. Across the country, African Americans are dying of COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. In Arizona, some Native American reservations have been especially hard-hit.
“COVID-19 is a lens through which we see even better what has happened as a result of the lack of being concerned about health disparities,” said Olga Davis, a professor at ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communications. Davis has researched public health issues among Phoenix African Americans.
“I’m very sad that it is still a reality after so much has been done so much has been written,” Davis said.
Dozens of factors, from educational opportunities to access to healthy food, create public health disparities across demographic groups. Air pollution is only one component, but it’s something Karwat said has the potential to improve.
With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. Karwat sees that as a rare opportunity for air quality research along with ASU colleague Jennifer Vanos.
“If we can measure it, then we can manage it better, then we can potentially fix it and see, could we get back to cleaner air? What policies made the biggest changes?” Vanos said.
Vanos and Karwat are applying for grant funding, hoping to be able to place dozens of air quality monitors around the city while air is cleaner than usual. Then, as social-distancing orders are gradually lifted, they’d be able to track which policy changes make the biggest impact on which neighborhoods—information that could be helpful for addressing disparities in Phoenix pollution levels in the future.
For now, those economic and environmental inequalities remain Dent said coronavirus is making them alarmingly clear.
“All of these challenges come together to hurt and impact populations in a really different way,” Dent said.
She hopes that frame is part of the way we seek policy solutions, when coronavirus is behind us.
The coronavirus pandemic is so new to us that things that seemed so certain — like the safety of our water supply — are suddenly raising questions. Among the nearly 1,500 questions our newsroom has fielded since the outbreak of COVID-19, some have been about water. They usually go something like this:
Can a person get the coronavirus from their home or work water supply?
The simple answer is: not really. Although the coronavirus can live in drinking water and sewage, it’s not likely to come into contact with you; our systems for moving water around, treating it, and disposing of it all work very well.
That said, there are reasonable precautions you can take, and things you can do to help our public drinking water and wastewater systems best serve our collective health.
Here are answers to some common questions about drinking water:
What risk does coronavirus pose to our drinking water supply?
Our major public water providers say coronavirus is not present in the drinking water supply coming to your home or work. Those include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power which supplies the city of L.A., and Metropolitan Water District, which supplies imported water to much of Southern California.
The water in your home or business in Southern California comes from local underground wells, and from aqueducts carrying it from Northern California or Colorado. Some water systems also have water that has been recycled. But in all cases the water coming out of your faucet has been treated to remove pathogens and disinfected with chlorine.
Some small residual of chlorine should still be in the water when it gets to your faucet.
Also, water in underground pipes and inside your home and workplace is under pressure, which helps keep contamination from getting into the water.
So, is it impossible for coronavirus to get into our tap water?
It’s unlikely but not impossible.
UC Riverside chemical engineering professor Haizhou Liu studies water treatment. He co-authored a paper calling for more research into how to remove coronavirus from public drinking and wastewater treatment systems. He says scientists recognize that coronavirus can live in both drinking water and sewage and that conventional treatments inactivate or kill the virus, but that more needs to be known about that process and how to improve it.
In drinking water systems, organic microorganisms can develop what’s called a biofilm on the interior of corroded pipes. The biofilm creates a kind of structure that viruses in the pipes can stick to and colonize, Liu said.
Under limited circumstances, the corrosion could flake loose from the interior of a pipe and cause the biofilm and its coronavirus colony to flow through the pipe to end users — that’s you — by way of a faucet, showerhead, garden hose, etc.. That could happen, for example, if a water utility changed the source of its water (like switching from well water to imported water, or from lake water to river water), causing a change in the chemical balance of the water, Liu said.
But this isn’t exactly cause for alarm. Los Angeles DWP General Manager Marty Adams said there is a very low risk that biofilms could carry coronavirus into our homes:
“If you were away for weeks at a time or starting a brand new water service for a house that had been unoccupied, you’d probably want to flush your lines really well first. That’s because that water could be sitting, which means that the chlorine in the line could have dissipated and maybe a biofilm started to form.”
If tap water’s safe, why are people stockpiling bottled water?
Back in March, when we were all told to stay home for several weeks, this was such a new situation, it seemed rational for people to buy up the one thing they consider essential. And it’s a generally good practice, here in earthquake country, to always have a supply that could keep you going for about two weeks. It shouldn’t take pandemic to get us to stock up, but that’s what happened.
Bottled water, or the filtered water you use to fill your jug at the water store generally does not have the same chlorine residual in it that purifies tap water, Adams said. Once your bottled water is unsealed, or your jug of water from the local water store is open, it’s important to keep it clean so it doesn’t become contaminated.
Can I get coronavirus from a faucet that an infected person recently used?
We know by now that the coronavirus is spread by person-to-person contact, and also by touching items that infected people have touched. So you might think that includes a kitchen or bathroom faucet.
Good handwashing (instructions here) means using soap all over your hands under running water for 20 seconds. Soap breaks down the envelope membrane surrounding the virus and renders it inactive. Soap also helps remove the oils on your hands the virus sticks to. The running water rinses it away. Use a towel to dry your hands and turn off the faucet.
If you’re living in a home with a person who is self-isolating because they have or might have the coronavirus, that person should be the only one using that restroom, if possible. If not, clean the high-touch surfaces in that restroom after every use.
What about steam from showers?
Liu’s paper said the novel coronavirus could colonize biofilms that line drinking water pipes, making showerheads a possible source of aerosolized transmission, meaning the water droplets make a fine spray that can carry the virus.
But, again, most water treatment routines and residual chlorine are thought to kill or remove coronaviruses effectively in tap water Liu said.
Is coronavirus in wastewater?
Yes, if it’s in you, it’s going to get into the wastewater system through the kitchen, shower, washing machine and toilet. Wastewater moves in a closed system of underground pipes to regional wastewater treatment plants, it’s unlikely you would come in contact with it.
Those plants are where the coronavirus gets killed. The kind of wastewater treatment common in Southern California removes many pathogens that are actually more difficult to kill than the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, said Traci Minimide, chief operating officer for LA City Sanitation and Environment, which includes the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant near Dockweiler Beach.
“The coronavirus is what they call an enveloped virus. And once that envelope is broken, then that basically inactivates the virus,” Minamide said. “And it’s much more fragile than other viruses.”
One of the big problems at wastewater plants right now is that people are flushing lots of things they shouldn’t. When toilet paper was hoarded during the panic purchasing of March, Angelenos started using other products that don’t disintegrate in the sewer system.
Paper towels and so-called flushable wipes can block some of the equipment at pump stations and treatment plants. So Minamide asked the public to flush only toilet paper and dispose of other products in the trash.
Is it safe to be in the ocean?
Some treated wastewater is discharged into the ocean from the Los Angeles city sanitation plant near Dockweiler beach. That water is not given a final disinfection with chlorine because it could harm ocean life. That already-treated water is discharged into the ocean using a pipe that is 5 miles long and 200 feet deep. It’s a very cold and salty environment. Minamide said local studies have shown that the discharged water does not return to the beach. So beachgoers or surfers should not be at risk from that water.
That said, surface runoff that might have virus in it does reach the ocean, so there is still a good reason to avoid the beach for now.
PHOENIX – The National Park Service abruptly closed Grand Canyon National Park on Wednesday, bowing to weeks of pressure after health officials expressed “extreme concern” about the potential for spread of COVID-19 in the park.
The park has been open with reduced services – and no entry fee – for two weeks as the number of coronavirus cases have spiked in the state and the nation and as public health officials have enacted increasingly strict limits on gatherings and public activities.
Those increases were cited Wednesday by Coconino County Chief Health Officer Thomas Pristow, who said the county has recorded 82 COVID-19 cases and four deaths from the disease. Projections of the disease’s growth over the next month are “staggering,” he said in a letter to park officials.
“The decision to allow the park to remain open puts park employees, area residents and tourists at risk,” Pristow’s letter said.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the decision to close the park came “as soon as we received the letter.” The park was closed immediately and will remain closed indefinitely, he said in a press release.
“The Department of the Interior and the National Park Service will continue to follow the guidance of state and local health officials in making determinations about our operations,” Bernhardt’s statement said.
But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, who had joined others urging the park’s closure, called Bernhardt’s explanation “absurd on its face,” noting that Pristow sent a similarly urgent letter Friday. He said “any competent authority would take notice and act immediately.”
“Instead, the Interior Department delayed for nearly a week while the governor remained silent,” Grijalva said in a statement Tuesday. “Secretary Bernhardt can’t blame anyone else for his inability to make the obvious and necessary decision.”
The Grand Canyon drew 6.3 million visitors who spent $947 million in the region in 2018, according to a National Park Service report last year. It said tourism to the park generated $1.2 billion in total economic activity and supported more than 12,000 jobs in the region.
Despite the potential economic hit, an official with the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce and Visitors welcomed the closure.
“I know for the safety of the residents, we’re happy that we’ve gotten to this point,” said Laura Chastain, the visitors bureau spokesperson. “Just wish it would have happened sooner.”
Tusayan Vice Mayor Brady Harris said he respects the “difficult decision” to temporarily close the park, “given the rapid spread of COVID-19.”
“It was made with the best interest of our residents in the surrounding community, by closing the Grand Canyon National Park,” Harris said. “I hope that the spread of this virus will be curved, allowing us to return back to normal as quickly and safely as possible.”
Calls for the park’s closure had been made by Coconino County officials and the Navajo Nation, among others. They were joined Tuesday by 10 members of Congress, including three from Arizona, who urged Bernhardt to close the park, citing public health and safety concerns. The lawmakers’s letter said that in one day on a popular Grand Canyon trail, a park ranger “had 600 contacts with visitors.”
Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, who signed the letter, said Wednesday he was glad to see Park Service leadership listened to concerns from members of Congress and others.
“While I am committed to protecting our public lands and ensuring that they are accessible to all Americans, the health and safety of my constituents is my top priority,” O’Halleran said in a press release following the closure announcement. “I believe that this is the correct course of action.”
While the park itself is closed, Chastain said she hopes people take advantage of digital park viewing tools during this time to “virtually” visit.
“We still have different videos we’ve created over the years that will allow people to still see a national treasure, even if we are closed for the safety of everyone,” she said.
PHOENIX – Saguaro National Park in Tucson has temporarily closed restrooms and visitor centers and halted public events, but that hasn’t stopped throngs of people from visiting the park during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Andy Fisher, chief of interpretation and a spokesperson for the park, said the trails last weekend were packed.
“We had a couple instances where cars were creating their own parking spots,” he said. “There were several hundred people that were gathering kind of through one of our major trailheads, which of course is not social distancing.
“March tends to be our busiest month of the year anyway. I think because there are closures around the community that there are folks that are finding their way to us.”
On March 19, Gov. Doug Ducey ordered the closure of bars, gyms and many restaurants, yet most of Arizona’s city, county, state and national parks remain open during the COVID-19 outbreak. This week Ducey issued an executive order that outlines essential services that will remain open including outdoor recreation.
As of Tuesday, March 24, Petrified Forest National Park has temporarily closed, and Monument Valley Tribal Park, which includes Antelope Canyon and Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Nation Reservation, has closed all its parks. Grand Canyon National Park remains open with limited services, but it recently announced modifications to river operations. Grand Canyon river rafting trips are also suspended until May 21.
But the city of Surprise isn’t taking any chances, and on Tuesday it closed all city park amenities and facilities “to minimize the potential spread of illness to reduce opportunities to gather,” according to the Surprise Parks & Recreation website. However, most Arizona state and national parks are only closing indoor facilities and programs, and keeping outdoor activities open to the public.
Video by Frankie McLister/Cronkite News
Phoenix Parks and Recreation is taking a wait-and-see approach. Spokesman Gregg Bach said this time of year is always busy on the trails because of the weather and tourism, and that the volume of traffic now occurring from social distancing “is a very similar volume as to what we would have normal times of the year.”
City parks director Inger Erickson, in an interview with Arizona Horizon on Wednesday, said, “We saw a spike on the weekend, but in the last couple of days we’ve actually seen it level out to our normal numbers that we would see on a typical spring day.”
In a statement to Cronkite News, the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department said it has “canceled all park programs and events, closed all park nature centers and group ramada reservations, closed group/youth campgrounds, and stopped accepting future reservations for these areas.”
The county is advocating social distancing – staying 6 feet apart – to slow the spread of novel coronavirus, the respiratory virus that causes COVID-19. Bach said that Phoenix Parks and Recreation is using “education and communication” to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Our preference really is to keep these amenities open and to educate people year-round on a variety of things that they need to do to be safe,” Bach said.
Phoenix Parks and Recreation is using infographics that lay out social distancing in public parks and trails as a way to help educate people.
“The National Recreation and Parks Association put out some great guidelines that we’ve posted,” Erickson said. “We’ve posted in English and Spanish at our trailheads, and we’ve also posted more specifics, like wash your hands, if you’re sick don’t come to this facility, don’t use this trail.”
Amy Hagin, park manager for Flagstaff, said her staff is seeing a higher number of people using trails rather than parks. She said she believes this is because residents are using their neighborhoods to get fresh air rather than going to public places.
“We’re seeing a lot of walking on the streets and sidewalks,” Hagin said. “I think people are taking those mental health breaks outside as they can, but still providing that physical distancing and social distancing.”
In Phoenix, Erickson said the city wants to keep the parks and the trails open, and right now there are no restrictions in place. However, she said they are emphasizing that people be mindful to bring their own wipes, hand sanitizers, and other items to keep themselves safe.
“We look at things every day,” Erickson said. “We communicate twice a day on what people are seeing, so that we make sure we’re addressing the need in a timely fashion.”
Bach, the Phoenix Parks spokesman, said Arizonans value parks and trails.
“Now I think people are valuing it even even a little bit more,” he said. “We just need to keep people mindful and make sure that they’re doing it responsibly in terms of all the current events that are going on.”
Despite repeated requests to practice social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19, more and more people are choosing to take their plans outdoors. Do you think Arizona should close its parks and trails to limit crowds?
WASHINGTON – Grand Canyon National Park is still open, but the same cannot be said for lodging and food services in the park that will be shuttered for the next two months by concerns over the novel coronavirus.
Grand Canyon Lodging on Thursday announced the “difficult decision” to suspend operations beginning at noon Friday and continuing through at least May 21.
The company, citing recent decisions in some jurisdictions to close bars and restaurants to help stem the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, said the decision was made out of concern for the health and safety of its employees and customers.
“This decision was not easy, and we recognize the significant impact on your travel plans. But we know that this is the responsible path forward to help slow the spread of the disease,” said a company statement, adding that Grand Canyon Lodging was “deeply sorry” for the disruption.
The announcement is just one of several affecting services at the park, which remains open. Delaware North announced this week that services at Yavapai Lodge and at Trailer Village would close Sunday, while park officials have halted shuttle service and closed the South Rim store and visitor stations, among other changes.
The Grand Canyon Lodging announcement comes one day after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said entry fees at all open national parks would be waived until further notice.
“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” Bernhardt said in a statement Wednesday.
He said the change would also improve “social distancing,” a key strategy to prevent the spread of the virus, by reducing interactions between park workers and visitors. Bernhardt encouraged visitors to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by washing hands frequently, keeping a safe distance from others, covering coughs and sneezes and avoiding touching your nose, eyes or mouth.
Requests Thursday for comment from National Park Service officials in Washington and Arizona were not immediately returned.
But some advocates said that while waiving fees is a good step, it should not be done just to make parks more accessible if that will lead to greater interaction between people.
“We remain concerned about the health and safety of park staff and visitors and strongly urge everyone to follow the guidance of public health experts before planning a trip to any park, in order to protect themselves and their communities,” Theresa Pierno, the president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement Wednesday.
Jeff Ruch, Pacific director of PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, charged that the Trump administration “seems to want to convey a sense of normalcy, even when it is not justified” with the decision to keep parks open.
“We don’t think the decisions are being made by park professionals. We think they are being made by senior political officials,” Ruch said.
As park services are trimmed back, businesses and residents in the area said they are starting to feel the pinch from COVID-19.
Although some restaurants are reporting brisk business, understaffing and a lack of resources are the biggest hindrance to area businesses, said Laura Chastain, general manager of the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce. She said work attendance has already dropped by 50%, as employees choose to take leave, and that some businesses in the area are encountering “supply issues.”
The town’s local foodbank, which was restocked Wednesday, ran out of food almost immediately, she said.
“Yesterday, it ran out of food within an hour,” she said. Even with emergency funding that will be coming from local and federal governments, the food bank might struggle to get supplies because “it is coming up from Phoenix and there are no volunteers down there to load the trucks.”