Environment Report: Why You Might Need More Than Six Feet of Space at the Beach - Voice of San Diego

Science/Environment

Environment Report: Why You Might Need More Than Six Feet of Space at the Beach

SDG&E is giving customers a break on energy bills, chickens aren’t easy to come by and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

A surfer at Harbor Beach in Oceanside / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Greetings, fellow nerds. Since the last newsletter, the total number of COVID-19 cases in San Diego county has risen about 1,000 percent. Now is the time to stay home.

While cities really cracked down on congregating en masse by shuttering the parking lots at public parks and beaches, and banning foot traffic on the sand itself, many state beaches remain open.

A recent bike tour from Del Mar to Carlsbad revealed empty beaches in Del Mar and Solana Beach, but surfers and beach walkers still trickled around South Carlsbad and Cardiff state beaches on Saturday. Some were staffed with state lifeguards. (Also fun, the sewage treatment facility at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station spilled about 7,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater on Wednesday. It’s a popular surf spot controlled by the state.)

That concerns Kim Prather, a scientist who studies the chemistry of the atmosphere at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She’s worried about the potential for the virus to become airborne near the ocean.

“All the rules for six-foot social distancing when you’re at the beach do not apply,” Prather said.

If it’s windy, the exhaled virus will travel farther than six feet. That rule only applies for still air or indoors, Prather said. If a surfer is exhaling, the virus in those droplets could remain airborne and infectious for hours, she said.

Viruses can remain alive in saltwater for days, if not months, she said. “We don’t know if that’s true for SARS-COV-2,” said Prather, referring to the name of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

The virus can be “shed” from patients through feces, but whether it remains infectious in that form is still unknown. One fecal source could be untreated sewage that flows into the Pacific Ocean at San Diego’s border with Mexico. Where does that sewage get trapped? The surf zone, Prather said.

Currents carrying that sewage then crash upon the shore in waves, shooting some of that microbial mix of viruses and bacteria into the air, she said. Water and bacterial particles glom on to other particles in the air, forming what are known as aerosols in the science world.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the World Health Organization has downplayed the possibility of COVID-19 transmission through aerosols. But a study published March 17 in the New England Journal of Medicine found the virus can be “viable and infectious” for three hours when suspended in a mist. A choir group decided to move forward with weekly rehearsal in Washington state, and now dozens are infected with COVID-19 and two are dead due to suspected aerosol transfer.

“People think when you’re at the beach, all you’re breathing is salty air,” Prather said. She published a study last year, though, showing that viruses with a lipid membrane — the fatty acids that don’t dissolve in water, like the source of COVID-19 — make their way from the ocean and into the air more frequently than others.

Very little is known about how breathing microbes and pollution launched from the ocean affect your health but four San Diego lifeguards recently tested positive for COVID-19. That still needs more investigation, Prather said.

“The question becomes, when the virus is transferred to the air (from the ocean), how long does it remain infectious?” Prather said. She hopes to find an answer through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Her advice: Stay home.

SDG&E Gives Break on Energy Bills

San Diego Gas and Electric began an unpaid bill forgiveness policy on March 13. If you miss a bill because your financial situation changed as a result of the coronavirus, don’t worry about being disconnected, said Wes Jones an SDG&E spokesman.

“We’ll keep power flowing to your house,” he said.

He instead encouraged customers to give the utility a call and talk about future repayment options.

The utility company is also waiving some of the more complicated requirements related to their low-income discount programs, known as CARE (California Alternate Rates for Energy) and FERA (Family Electric Rate Assistance). Before, customers had to apply and qualify only after what’s called a post-enrollment verification process, which involved submitting documents to prove your income. SDG&E has “halted” that step to make it easier to qualify, Jones said.

Overall, power demand from the commercial side is down and there’s a modest increase in the residential sector. But since more people are working and living inside their homes, that means they’re using more energy in the middle of the day when it’s cheapest, Jones said. Typically, energy demand spikes after 5 p.m. when most people get home from work, cook, eat and vegetate in front of Netflix.

So, that’s positive, right? 

Now the Bad News: You Can’t Rent a Chicken

I also chose to invest my weekend in eight hours of hardcore gardening, preparing the beds of my “victory garden.” (For those of you who fell asleep in history class, Americans were once encouraged to use every inch of the nation’s soil to grow food during wartime.) I’ve heard others are plowing up their yards, which may or may not be OK in the eyes of landlords. In any case, California has suspended evictions for two months.

First I triumphed over the four-foot grasses covering my neighborhood plot and wreaked havoc on the sod, armed only with a cheap garden fork. I roused sleeper cell roommates to build out the bunkers and trenches before the onslaught against our next great enemy: the slippery snail, whose slimy scourge strikes mainly in the dead of night. I put out a request via Instagram for spare eggshells to armor our vulnerable veggies, because the situation is dire.

MacKenzie Elmer building a neighborhood garden and preparing for snail warfare. / Photo by Alba Solsona

I even considered renting a chicken — seriously, it’s a thing — but RentTheChicken.com no longer has locations in California. They will, however, ship a coop and hens.

“We get super busy this time of year, pandemic or no pandemic,” said Jen Tompkins, the company’s co-founder.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized over which medium the virus could spread.

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