There’s a subtle paper trail on the many ways Utahns have coped with radical changes in their lives during the pandemic.
These behavioral tea leaves, as it were, are found in our utilities — how we’re using the internet, consuming water, flushing toilets and what we’re putting in the garbage.
Here is a look at what has changed and what it says about life during the crisis:
Getting on the web
The Wasatch Front’s largest internet service providers, or ISPs, say web traffic has increased between 30% and 35% since March, when Gov. Gary Herbert first announced social distancing directives and Utah’s public schools sent students home.
Traffic from residential customers is up, but use of commercial bandwidth hasn’t declined significantly. Many offices might be all but empty, but use of workplace servers and virtual private networks is ramped up to make all that remote employee access possible.
The big ISPs say they steadily built network capacity in years before the pandemic and those grids are now engineered to handle the added loads without major slowdowns.
“Our network was built to quickly scale up and down and to handle large peaks,” added CenturyLink spokeswoman Courtney Morton.
Officials with Comcast, CenturyLink, Google Fiber and UTOPIA all report a big jump in requests for new home installations in recent months. That has meant finding ways to limit contact with customers and providing protective masks and gloves for in-home installers.
UTOPIA Fiber, a broadband network owned by 11 Utah cities, said it has seen a nearly 50% spike in new service-activation requests through the end of April.
Struggles with COVID-19 have also revealed glaring inequities among Utah’s public school students as they converted on the fly to online learning, according to the state’s superintendent of public instruction.
“If we learned nothing else from all of this, it's that we have to create an education system that's based on principles of equity so that all of our students have the same ability to start at the same place with the tools they need,” Sydnee Dickson said in a recent presentation to the state’s technology CEOs.
Some school districts have parked Wi-Fi-enabled buses in disadvantaged neighborhoods to give their students web access.
The ISPs, on their end, have stepped up outreach to underserved communities and pledged that customers who are struggling financially won’t lose their access.
How we’ve used the bandwidth
Two months of stay-at-home life have also created some unprecedented shifts in how Utahns are using the internet.
• Weekday traffic has heightened, of course, with pronounced effects from increased virtual network use, videoconferencing and voice-over-internet phone calls. VoIP bandwidth alone has grown 228% since March 1, according to Comcast.
• CenturyLink said it now sees a bump in traffic at the top of each hour on weekdays, coinciding with businesses holding video meetings.
• Peak hours are still in the evening, but downloads by home users appear to be shifting earlier, from around 9 p.m. to between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. — thanks, of course, to marked spikes in web video consumption.
• Entertainment and gaming are dominating network usage overall. With use of on-demand video greatly expanded, viewing hours have increased by as much as two hours per day per household.
• Comcast says game downloads on its networks are up 77%.
From the faucet...
Hunkering down at home has also had major and worrisome effects on how city residents use water and sewers.
Salt Lake City’s Department of Public Utilities is already girding for the possibility of budget cuts this year, in fact, due in part to a decline in revenues from an anticipated drop in water sales. Dozens of other cities are seeing similar fiscal disruptions.
The urban core usually draws thousands of commuters to work in downtown offices by day. Large shares of them have instead been running their dishwashers and taking long baths in other cities and suburbs not on the city’s extensive water system.
With commercial buildings at minimal staffing and other big water users like public schools and restaurants closed for public health, that’s a lot of missing consumption, according to department Director Laura Briefer.
The gap, Briefer said, is unlikely to be made up by an anticipated uptick in culinary and irrigation water usage by residential neighborhoods within city bounds.
City Hall also anticipates a budget hit as more residents can’t pay their bills due to financial hardship, she said. The city has vowed not to shut off water to delinquent households during the pandemic.
... and down the drain
Sewer managers, meanwhile, say that the brief toilet paper shortage in the pandemic’s early weeks led people to flush all kinds of alternatives, including bleach wipes, paper towels, napkins, rags and other cleaning materials.
Bleach wipes, in particular, have city and sewer district officials across Utah practically begging residents not to put them down the toilet. They don’t decompose the way toilet paper does, officials warn, and they put sewers at risk of major clogs, damage to system pumps and even burst lines.
“We are really concerned about the use of so-called flushable wipes, which really aren’t,” Briefer said.
Roy officials discovered a sewer line clog in late March made entirely of wipes. Sewer districts along the Wasatch Front are offering similar alerts on their webpages.
Briefer said Salt Lake City and other sewer districts and utilities will also be sampling raw sewage for COVID-19 as part of an experiment coordinated by Utah Division of Water Quality.
Utah scientists say the pilot project will help determine if wastewater testing could help in tracking new outbreaks of the disease.
What’s in your garbage can?
The amount of residential garbage collected in Utah’s capital week to week has risen by double digits as one might expect with more time at home. Trash collection from some downtown areas is down.
Even more illuminating is what’s showing up in those blue, green and brown cans these days.
The tonnage of so-called green waste picked up curbside in Salt Lake City — such as leaves, branches and other yard materials — jumped by 22% in March compared with a year before. Then it exploded in April, at nearly 150% more than in March.
Folks at City Hall are attributing the gain “entirely to residents being home and actively working their yards and gardens,” said Christopher Bell, director of the city’s waste and recycling division.
The city’s Call 2 Haul program for removing large mounds of curbside waste and junk by appointment has also seen robust usage, Bell said.
Interest in gardening has blossomed since March across the U.S. and Utah. Enthusiasts say it is both therapeutic and a Victory Garden-like hedge against possible interruptions in grocery supplies.
After canceling its yearly in-garden event for COVID-19, nonprofit Wasatch Community Gardens in Salt Lake City saw its first-ever online plant sale swamped by demand on April 30. Managers had to shut their site down after inventories ran low.
On the recycling front, weights of items such as boxes, paper and aluminum have declined slightly — but that same tonnage is somehow filling more cans.
Turns out, those bins are now being stuffed with more unflattened and naturally padded corrugated cardboard boxes, thanks to an increase in online shopping and home deliveries.
Even curbside glass recycling in Salt Lake City tells a tale of life in the shadow of contagion. Tonnages of glass collected curbside since mid-March are nearly 106% higher than last year, according to Bell.
And, truth be told, that waste stream traditionally carries mostly empty beer, wine and liquor bottles.
The surge in glass matches data from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control on buying patterns at the state’s liquor stores, which have seen at least $79.3 million in sales since March 12, when Herbert’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive first took effect.
That’s about 4.4% higher than sales for the same period last year, but with a major caveat:
A DABC spokesman noted that with bars and taverns shut down in March and April and limited liquor store hours, that dollar figure reflects some truly heavy shopping — and a much bigger share of bottles headed to home consumption.
Clarification: 4:10 p.m., May 18, 2020 — This story was updated to reflect more current information for UTOPIA Fiber sign-up requests.