01 June 2020
Coronavirus Makes Cooling Centers Risky, Just as Scorching Weather Hits

Officials are scrambling to find ways to protect residents against dueling threats of extreme heat and the coronavirus.


WASHINGTON — Temperatures in Phoenix are expected to hit 105 this week. Sacramento has already broken heat records recently, as have Galveston, Texas, Salt Lake City and Fort Myers, Fla.

But the usual strategy that cities rely upon to protect the most vulnerable from the heat — encouraging people to gather and cool down in public buildings like libraries or recreation centers — doesn’t work in an era of the coronavirus and social distancing. So cities across the country are rushing to test other ideas.

In Phoenix, officials plan to start renting hotel rooms to help homeless people stay out of the heat. New York City is looking to help residents pay their electricity bills, in order to make air-conditioning more affordable.

Others are considering handing out free air-conditioners to people whose homes lack them. And in Austin, Texas, officials may soon be dispatching fleets of air-conditioned city buses to serve as cooling centers in neighborhoods where the need for relief is greatest.

“They could sit on there throughout the day,” said Chris Crookham, the city’s public health emergency preparedness manager. Of course, given the requirements of social distancing, “we would definitely not be able to fill up the bus.”

Not only has the Covid-19 crisis made gathering dangerous, public health and emergency management officials point out, but on top of that the very people most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses — the elderly or chronically ill — also tend to be most vulnerable to the virus. Last year was the second hottest on record, and climate change is intensifying heat waves around the world.


There are two basic ways to help people stay cool when temperatures soar, said Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. The first is making it safer for people to stay in their homes; the second is giving them somewhere to go if they can’t.

To keep people safe at home, New York City is looking at expanding its “Be a Buddy” program, which encourages people to call or text with friends and neighbors — but refrain from showing up in person — to see if they’re suffering from the heat, said Carolyn Olson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That’s in addition to the city’s idea to help more people pay for electricity this summer so that they can use air-conditioning and not fear a crushing bill.

Other cities are considering doing the same. And for people who still struggle to pay, some places have temporarily blocked power companies from cutting off electricity.

But those ideas only work for people who have air-conditioners in the first place. Richmond, Va., is looking at requesting revisions to a state-run program that provides air-conditioners to people in need, according to Alicia Zatcoff, the city’s sustainability manager.

But experts warned that steps like these won’t go far enough because the problem is so big. In New York City, for example, 10 percent of households lack air-conditioning, and that number rises to as much as 30 percent in poorer communities, Ms. Olson said. Even in cities in the South, where air-conditioning is more common, homes in coastal areas often lack it, as do many public housing units.




Cover Photo: Credit…Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times


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