New office necessity in smoky Silicon Valley: gas masks

(Bloomberg) – As the smoke hovering over the San Francisco Bay Area got thicker, many workers opted to stay home, or leave the region entirely. Those who have stayed are stocking up on air purifiers and respirator masks.

The wildfire in nearby Butte County is the deadliest in California history. It’s sending an unprecedented amount of smoke into San Francisco and Silicon Valley to the south, where many of the largest technology companies employ tens of thousands of workers.

"Wind is pushing the smoke straight into the Bay Area where it is collecting, and not moving," said Tina Landis from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. "Our recommendation is to not go outside and work from home to avoid the commute."

San Francisco ranked as the second-worst city in the world for air quality on Friday, according to data provider AirVisual. The Bay Area’s air quality index rose above 240 on Thursday afternoon, a score deemed "very unhealthy." Public schools across the Bay Area closed Friday due to the hazard.

Despite the warnings, some employees of Apple, Google and Twitter are going to work, but buying masks to protect themselves.

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People wear masks while smoke from the Camp Fire fills the air in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. The smoke from Californias deadliest fire is so thick that its blotting out the sun and lowering surface temperatures by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit (6 Celsius), according to the U.S. National Weather Service. Photographer: Michael Short/Bloomberg

"They’re selling like crazy," said John Heaphy, a salesman at a Cole Hardware store near Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. "We get a lot of tech types coming in to buy masks."

A representative for Airbnb said the home-sharing company is making masks available to employees who request them through the security desk of its San Francisco headquarters. E-commerce company EBay and ride-hailing firm Lyft are also giving masks out.

Since Butte County’s Camp Fire began on Nov. 8, online searches for "respirator masks" and similar terms have jumped 40% in California, according to SEMrush a firm that measures online queries. In Amazon’s. “tools and home improvement” section, a box of 3M respirators is a best seller.

Tech workers who can’t work from home are opting to stay indoors at their offices, even when it is less convenient. At Apple’s doughnut-shaped headquarters, called Apple Park, workers walking to and from meetings are taking the long route indoors, rather than cutting through the sylvan grounds in the center, said an Apple employee who asked not to be identified. Another employee who declined to be identified said some Apple workers were wearing masks at their desks.

The Mountain View headquarters of Google parent Alphabet is relatively empty, said an employee who visited the office on Friday. Google’s famous multicolored bikes, known as Gbikes, have gone mainly unused this week, the employee said.

Overall, the Bay Area is less active. Residents in the region ran 77% less and cycled 78% less on Wednesday, versus four weeks prior, according to fitness tracking company Strava.