Many people across the country experienced remote work for the first time in the spring when states shut everything down in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Current cases and hospitalizations are many times what the state of Utah saw then, but businesses are now better equipped to mitigate the disease’s spread with reopening plans that include hygiene and physical distancing measures.
A lot of people returned to the office in May when Gov. Gary Herbert lifted state restrictions, but many are still teleworking, which officials, studies and climate advocates say is helping air quality levels.
Both the Weber-Morgan and Davis County health departments continue to encourage residents to telecommute or work from home if they can.
Figures are unavailable for how many businesses in Weber and Davis counties are still having their employees work from home and at what frequency that’s occurring — say, if a company’s employees are working exclusively remotely or if they come into the office one or two days per week.
No agency keeps data on how whether businesses are working in-person or remotely. MarketStar, the majority of whose approximately 1,300 employees work out of its Ogden headquarters, is still on fully remote working. But many other employers have brought workers back.
Weber-Morgan Health Department spokesperson Lori Buttars said the department encourages working from home for many reasons, namely to control the spread of COVID-19 and also to help out air quality.
Davis County Health Department spokesperson Trevor Warner said the department is encouraging working from home mostly if businesses can’t meet the business reopening guidelines — such as ensuring adequate physical distancing between employees — established in the yellow phase for reopening, which Davis County falls under right now.
Davis Chamber of Commerce CEO Angie Osguthorpe said telecommuting has been a good tool during this time for companies to use.
“It’s working well with air quality and productivity,” she said.
The Utah Clean Air Partnership conducted a survey of approximately 7,500 workers in March right when the lockdown started.
Of those, 97% were doing some sort of teleworking during the pandemic and more than 55% of organizations surveyed started exclusively teleworking at the start of the pandemic.
It’s unclear how many organizations were surveyed or what constituted an “organization” for the survey’s purposes.
As far as air quality influences, 92% of those surveyed reported either a reduced commute or no commute at all; 94% of executives surveyed said they’re likely to continue allowing employees to remotely work specifically on poor air quality days; and 93% of employees said they’d like to continue teleworking specifically on bad air quality days.
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America concluded that COVID-19 lockdowns resulted in large reductions in nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter levels in 34 countries.
According to a Utah Department of Environmental Quality study, air quality levels were dramatically lower this spring than in prior years as a direct result of fewer cars on the road — the Utah Department of Transportation estimated traffic volume was down 40% — and more people staying at home.
In measurements taken in Salt Lake City, the DEQ reported a 59% decrease in fine particulate matter and anywhere between a 19% and 33% decrease in carbon dioxide levels.
According to the DEQ, exposure to fine particles can lead to numerous health problems.
“Smaller particulate matter (PM2.5) poses the greatest risk because it can penetrate deeply into the lungs where it can cause inflammation and damage to the lung tissue,” reads a portion of the DEQ’s website concerning air quality. “The health effects of particulate matter include: Lung irritation, coughing, or shortness of breath; Worsening asthma symptoms and increased attacks; Increased susceptibility to respiratory infections; Nonfatal heart attacks and arrhythmias; Reduction in lung function; Premature death in people with lung or heart disease.”
A September article in Utah Business, a state business magazine, hints at potential policies that would incentivize remote work, but nothing official has been determined.
As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in Utah, some employers may move back to remote work this fall and winter regardless of what directives come or don’t come from the governor’s office.
Inversion season is still a couple of months away, so until bad air quality days start occurring more frequently along the Wasatch Front, it’s too soon to tell if the figures exhibited in the UCAP study will stick.