May 6, 2020

Coronavirus Makes Cooling Centers Risky, Just as Scorching Weather Hits


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.

As a result, many people will still need other places to cool off, officials said. In response, many cities are being forced to rethink what cooling centers can look like.

In Los Angeles, Aram Sahakian, director of the city’s emergency management department, is trying to make cooling centers as virus-proof as possible.

When temperatures hit the low 90s at the end of April, Mr. Sahakian’s office opened five cooling centers, but under strict conditions: Anyone trying to get in had their temperature taken. People were then given masks, which they had to wear at all times, as well as gloves and sanitizer. And security staff made sure people stayed at least six feet apart.

“We wanted to test the system,” Mr. Sahakian said. “The Department of Public Health feels comfortable that we should be OK.”

In Jackson, Miss., officials will gauge the risks of opening cooling centers based in part on how aggressively the virus is spreading at the time, according to Robert Blaine, the city’s chief administrative officer.

To measure that spread, the city has invited residents to go to a website and log their symptoms. It’s even working with a company to train an artificial intelligence program to identify, just from the sound of somebody coughing into the phone, the odds that the person has Covid-19. It creates a map showing where people with symptoms may be clustered in the city, Dr. Blaine said. “We’re trying to be very careful about how we look at the data.”

In Harris County, which includes Houston, officials are thinking bigger.

The county is looking at using some of the large sports venues and convention centers that are now sitting vacant, said Francisco Sanchez, the county’s deputy emergency management coordinator. That could include NRG Park, he said, the sports complex that’s home to the building formerly known as the Astrodome.

In Richmond, Va., officials are asking whether cooling requires a building at all.

The city has worked to map which neighborhoods have the greatest exposure to heat waves, according to Ms. Zatcoff, the sustainability manager. Now it’s comparing those maps with areas with the highest proportions of people most vulnerable to the virus, such as the elderly or poor, or minority communities.

The places with the greatest overlap tend to have few parks or other open spaces, according to Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, who is working with Richmond on its heat strategy. So the city is looking at turning some streets into impromptu social spaces, particularly for use in the evenings when temperatures outdoors can be lower than inside homes without air-conditioning.

It wouldn’t be a cooling center, strictly speaking: There wouldn’t be tents with air-conditioning. But blocking off streets from traffic gives people room to get outside while still maintaining social distancing, Dr. Hoffman said.

“Instead of closing down the small amount of space that we have for recreation, let’s expand that space where we don’t have a lot of car traffic,” Dr. Hoffman said.

In Phoenix, which has both a large number of homeless people and a rising number of heat-related deaths each year, officials are using federal money to rent out hotel rooms for months or longer, according to Tamra Ingersoll, a city spokeswoman. The goal is to use those hotel rooms to protect people from both the virus and heat waves.

The city was still finalizing the details, Ms. Ingersoll said, and didn’t yet know how many rooms would be available. She said the city planned to obtain “as many as we can with the money we have.”

Lisa Glow, chief executive at Central Arizona Shelter Services, which has had to cut the number of people it can house to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, praised the city’s response. She said officials told her they were planning to book 95 hotel rooms. For those lucky enough to get one, she said, “we will be able to keep them safe now and all summer.”

The problem, she added, is what happens to everyone else.

The latest count of homelessness in Phoenix, taken in January, showed almost 4,000 people were sleeping without shelter in the city and the area around it. And she said she expected the economic crash to push more people into the streets.

“It won’t solve the problem entirely,” Ms. Glow said of the city’s plan. “Is it enough, is really the question.”


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