Outbreaks and masks: Which Salt Lake County workers are most at risk and where customers are covering up

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Masks are required in many stores in Downtown Salt Lake City, Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

Where is the virus hiding?

That’s been a consistent question during the pandemic, as we all try to balance our desire for normalcy with the risk that we could get sick. What kind of situations are likely to spread the virus, and which are more likely to be benign?

Sure, we know that staying socially distanced is important, that enclosed places and tight spaces aren’t good, and that masks should be worn in public. But beyond that, details have been sparse — we’ve learned about two Utah County businesses with coronavirus outbreaks and the meatpacking plant in Cache County, but not much more.

To give people more information, the Salt Lake County Health Department updated its coronavirus dashboard this week, including information on what types of businesses are more likely to see an outbreak. The county also released the results of a mask study, in which officials observed 55 businesses to track how well customers followed the mandatory mask order.

Coronavirus outbreaks by type of business

Salt Lake County defines an outbreak as any time two or more people in one workplace test positive within 14 days of one another.

So far, just over 3,000 of Salt Lake County’s nearly 24,000 positive cases have been categorized as part of a workplace outbreak. This doesn’t include the times when only one employee gets sick, or those instances when two employees test positive but the results come more than 14 days apart, or when workers don’t test positive, but really are infected (it does happen). It doesn’t count anyone we haven’t completed the contact tracing process with. In other words, this count is probably missing a significant number of people, but we don’t know how many.

That being said, we can use this data to begin to understand which workers are most at risk. My colleague Nate Carlisle wrote a wonderful article on Friday about this Salt Lake County workplace data. His article answered a lot of my questions. But one consequence of my heightened sense of curiosity is that new questions spew out of my brain when old ones are answered.

For example, here is the table (unique headline and all) from Nate’s article, depicting how many cases were found in outbreaks in each of the top 10 sectors:

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

I immediately wanted to know how that compared to the total number of businesses and employees in each sector. It makes sense, for example, that retail would have a lot of coronavirus cases — a lot of people work in retail! But does this mean retail workers are in a more dangerous environment than workers in other sectors?

I tracked down data from Utah’s Department of Workforce Services about the nearly 50,000 businesses in Salt Lake County. Each listed an approximate number of employees — for example, The Salt Lake Tribune is listed as having between 50-99 employees. When I needed to guess about how many employees each business had, I picked the midpoint number in a given range.

Each business is also categorized by what’s called an NAICS code, which we can cross reference using the federal code list to learn what each business is in the business of doing. The Tribune’s code is 511110, which means we’re a newspaper. If you look at just the first two digits of our code, 51, you can figure out what sector we’re in — Information.

Businesses with multiple locations are counted individually, so for example there are six separate Zurchers locations on Salt Lake County’s list.

Just because I think it’s interesting, here are the sectors ranked by the number of businesses and then by the approximate number of employees.

We can then cross-reference that list with the county’s coronavirus outbreak data. That means we can answer this question: What are the odds that a business in that sector has experienced a coronavirus outbreak?

About 1 in 4 Salt Lake County food manufacturing businesses have had an outbreak. That’s pretty scary! Beyond that, call centers, and other types of manufacturing round out the top three. It’s very notable that food services and drinking places makes No. 4: 1 in 22 of your favorite restaurants and bars have seen an outbreak.

But of course, some businesses have more employees on average than others — your average food processing plant employs more people than your average nail salon. So of the approximate employees in each sector, what are the odds that they’ll test positive as part of an outbreak?

Still, working in food processing plants is the most dangerous: about 1 in 20 of those employees have caught the virus as part of an outbreak. Working in food service or retail are about equally dangerous, where employees are about 10 times more likely to catch the virus as part of an outbreak than, say, your average professional worker. Many of those people were likely able to work from home.

What is the county doing about this? When an outbreak is discovered in a business, the Salt Lake County Health Department sends a team to check for any situations that would be a concern for future transmission, and work with employers to alter or prevent those.

The health department also employs liaisons who work with each of these sectors to prevent outbreaks, sharing tips and best practices among industry types. They’re also the ones who investigate when consumers send in a tip complaining about a business not following the rules.

We all are at risk of catching this virus, but some of us are in jobs where it is far more likely. This list should help some business owners and employees alike who need to take more precautions.

Salt Lake County mask study

While they were at it, Salt Lake County also announced the results of a mask study. Researchers went to 55 different businesses that get plenty of foot traffic — convenience stores, grocery stores, home goods stores, hardware stores, and sporting goods stores — to see what percentage of people were wearing masks. On top of that, they noted if people were wearing the masks correctly, as well as their approximate age and gender.

These observations were made from August 14-17, in which 2,874 people were seen at these businesses. Overall, 96.6% of Salt Lake County shoppers were wearing a face mask. However, 8% of them were wearing it incorrectly (Keep the mask over your nose, people).

Which city these shoppers were in didn’t seem to matter much — every area besides Herriman had over 90% mask compliance, and even that southwest region was above 75%.

Of those not wearing a mask, more were men than women: 55% to 45%. A majority of those spotted not wearing masks were in the 12 to 44 age range (59%), though I’m not sure that’s a particularly notable result, given that a majority of people in Salt Lake County are in that age range. One-third of those not wearing masks were 45-64, and 8% were over 65.

Finally, shoppers were quite good about wearing masks in all types of stores except for convenience stores. Perhaps the in-and-out nature of such a trip makes people more likely to forget the mask?

I feel for convenience store workers, who probably don’t have the support staff to ensure patrons are masked up. They’re in some dangerous circumstances as they interact with the unmasked masses.

We’ll keep an eye on this data moving forward to see how coronavirus outbreak and masking data changes in Salt Lake County over time. In particular, I’m very curious to see how the approaching fall and winter seasons might impact the safety of employees and the behavior of shoppers.

Andy Larsen is a Tribune sports reporter who covers the Utah Jazz. During this crisis, he has been assigned to dig into the numbers surrounding the coronavirus. You can reach Andy at alarsen@sltrib.com or on Twitter at @andyblarsen.