Extreme summer temperatures target the same communities most vulnerable to Covid-19. Where can people go when staying indoors with air conditioning isn’t safe?
On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in North Miami, Carmen Arocho, 54, has taken her four grandchildren to a nearby supermarket — not to get groceries but to escape the oppressive heat that’s been baking South Florida. She doesn’t like to do this often, as each trip increases the risks of them contracting the coronavirus. Miami-Dade County is currently the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., with local health officials reporting upwards of 2,000 new cases daily since July 1.
But with the heat index planted over 100 degrees, Arocho says she can’t keep the kids at home in the two-bedroom apartment they share with her partner and their three adult children. Their air conditioning unit is old and often freezes if it’s kept on for too long. When that happens, Arocho usually packs the family into their car with the engine idling and the AC running — sometimes even during bedtime to help the kids fall asleep. But her gas costs have been racking up. She says she hasn’t complained to her landlords about the faulty unit for fear of getting evicted.
The grocery store is her last resort. “We go in there and walk around to try to get some air because there’s nowhere else to go,” she says. Libraries and community pools are closed, and restaurants in North Miami are restricted to outdoor dining. Neither the city nor the county currently operates cooling centers in the are
This year is already set to be the hottest one on record. A persistent July heatwave across the much U.S. has been pushing temperatures to dangerous levels, complicating pandemic-fighting efforts in several cities that have become infection hotspots, like Miami, Houston, and Phoenix. Residents in several cities reported waiting hours in the unrelenting heat to get tested, for example, and some sites were shut down as conditions became hazardous for the staff. And as groups of residents flee to air-conditioned indoor spaces, they expose themselves to greater infection risk. It’s a convergence of crises that public health experts saw coming months ago when President Donald Trump floated the myth that the coronavirus would simply “go away” in the summer heat.
Seasonal spikes in heat-related illnesses may not only exacerbate symptoms in COVID patients but also put further strain on hospitals already operating near or beyond capacity, says Ankush Bansal, a physician based in Palm Springs, Florida, who co-chairs the Florida Clinicians for Climate Action coalition. Heatwaves kill more Americans than any other kind of extreme weather, and the communities most affected are low-income elderly adults, households that live in poor neighborhoods, and the homeless — the same populations that are disproportionately vulnerable to Covid-19. As with so many other inequalities in the U.S., the pandemic exposes how some communities bear the brunt of climate change and the divide between who gets to shelter indoors and who doesn’t.
A third of all American households already struggle to pay their utility bills or keep their heating and cooling systems at home, according to the latest national residential energy consumption survey, done in 2015. More than 6 million households, or 5% of the national population, reported losing their air conditioning that year. The issue was more likely to affect minority and low-income households, as well as families with at least one child, according to the report.
Many live in homes with a high energy burden, says Michelle Kirwan, a pediatrician who serves low-income families like Arocho’s at a community health center in Miami Gardens. “Their bills are higher because of the quality of their homes — insulation, sealings around their door, and things like that — are less than standard,” she says. “So I’ve had a lot of patients who’ve had the electricity turned off.”
The perils of cooling centers
Ever since a catastrophic 1995 heatwave killed more than 700 people in Chicago, many of whom were elderly apartment-dwellers who lacked air conditioning, urban health departments have focused on opening cooling centers — large, air-conditioned public spaces — for those who don’t have AC at home or don’t have a home. But the coronavirus presents new challenges to such heat-relief efforts. “The problem is if you put in a bunch of people in an enclosed indoor space, then you’re not maintaining social distance,” says Bansal. “So you’re increasing the risk of spreading the virus, particularly to those who are homeless and of low income.”
Some cities are keeping cooling centers closed this year, while others have scaled back their capacity and put strict social distancing protocols in place. In Baltimore, where more than a dozen facilities opened up on Monday after temperatures crested 100 degrees for two consecutive days, staff and visitors go through health screenings and temperature checks at the door and are required to wear masks. Tape on the ground helps maintain six feet distance between people, and each seat is immediately sanitized after use. Activities are kept to a minimum; instead, they’re handing out magazines that visitors can take with them.
Each center is limited to only 25% of its normal capacity, but Molly Martin, the deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Health Department, says the past few days have seen little attendance. She expects more people to come as word gets out and as the heat persists, though she’s hoping a new program will keep most people at home. The city is handing out 1,200 window AC units and 25,000 box fans to low-income seniors, with some given to younger families and homeless shelters. “We had free box fans at one of our cooling sites [on Tuesday], with curbside delivery, and people got there early,” she says.
New York City is running a similar combination of programs, opening cooling centers while aiming to install 74,000 portable AC units in low-income homes and public housing units occupied by at-risk older people. Houston is distributing at least 250 machines mostly to seniors with heat emergencies, but will only open cooling sites if there is a large number of people seeking shelter at once. Right now, the city gets about 50 calls a day for heat-relief assistance, and those who don’t qualify for a unit get help with finding somewhere else to cool off — be it a neighbor’s house or some sort of public space — with the city providing transportation if necessary, according to emergency management coordinator Nickea Bradley.