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During pandemic, San Diego skies take a breath


Read the full article by Deborah Sullivan Brennan in the San Diego Union-Tribune here.

As San Diegans close themselves up at home during the COVID-19 crisis, the region’s skies have taken a deep breath.

One of the unintended consequences of isolation has been fewer car trips and less air pollution. While no one would choose this path to clean air, officials see a chance to revisit air pollution and climate strategies in order to maintain some of those reductions once business as usual resumes.

Telecommuting, once a footnote to many climate action plans, is now viewed as a viable option for many businesses that don’t require workers to be physically present every day. And reducing vehicle trips by carefully planning errands and other car travel — now a necessity to reduce exposure to the coronavirus — could be a healthy habit to maintain once the pandemic is over.

“The coronavirus has been horrible and we certainly wish none of this would have ever happened,” said San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, a leader of the county’s COVID-19 response and board member of both the state and local air boards. “But when we go through tragedy and crisis and difficulty, a lot of times it has an impact on our actions. After the September 11 attacks, we never got on an airplane the same way. I think there is an opportunity coming out of this for a much more widespread use of telecommuting, telework and telemedicine.”

Oxides of nitrogen, one of the key air pollutants and a precursor to smog, is down by about 20 percent to 30 percent during peak commute hours at sites in Chula Vista and El Cajon for the month of March compared to last year, according to preliminary data from the San Diego Air Pollution Control District.

“It’s not a huge number... just because the (NOX) numbers are pretty low in general” after decades of tightened emission standards, said Bill Brick, chief of monitoring and technical services for the San Diego Air Pollution Control District. “But it’s still a significant drop.”

Levels of fine particulates, tiny particles that lodge in the lungs, are also down in the morning and afternoon periods for March of this year compared to last year, preliminary air board data show.

Moreover, a new study out of Harvard found that exposure to fine particulates worsens the prognosis for those very patients fighting coronavirus infection. Just one extra microgram per cubic meter of fine particulates is associated with a 15 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate, the study concluded.

The research highlights how the twin inequities of infectious disease and poor air quality conspire to sicken the poorest and most vulnerable people, and illuminates the need for air-quality solutions long after the COVID-19 crisis subsides, officials said.

“That’s a light that we need to be bright, and we need it to shine deep into the unequal nature of public health in America,” Fletcher said.

While walking, biking and telecommuting may be seen as solutions during and after the COVID-19 crisis, officials say other strategies for reducing greenhouse emissions, such as transit use and housing density, may fall out of favor in light of social-distancing protocols.

That’s a problem, Fletcher said, because the county’s climate action plan depends on increasing transit and building denser neighborhoods in order to slash vehicle trips.

“The reluctance to embrace those two things could offset any gains in the other areas,” he said, adding that San Diegans will have to be “very thoughtful and intentional” about rebuilding transit ridership while also protecting public health.

San Diego leaders agree that the COVID-19 pandemic will forever alter how people do business and live their lives. The challenge will be to steer those changes toward a healthier path for the region.