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Cities’ summer challenge: Keep people cool while keeping COVID-19 at bay

Erika Beras Jul 24, 2020
Heard on:
Three boys stand in the middle of the fountain in Washington Square Park in New York. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Cities’ summer challenge: Keep people cool while keeping COVID-19 at bay

Erika Beras Jul 24, 2020
Heard on:
Three boys stand in the middle of the fountain in Washington Square Park in New York. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

In the age of social distancing and other efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, cities are grappling with whether to encourage vulnerable populations to leave their homes during extreme heat and congregate under a communal air-conditioning system or stay home and hope that the summer heat doesn’t make them sick. 

“It’s a hard time because every choice we have seems to be a decision between two really bad options,” said New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago,” which examines the 1995 heat wave that killed more than 700 people in the Windy City.

The death toll in Chicago prompted cities to start opening cooling centers, places with air-conditioning systems where residents who were vulnerable to heat-induced illness could stay cool.

But air-conditioning systems can spread airborne pathogens like the novel coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, “the same communities that are vulnerable to challenges from heat are also most vulnerable to the virus as well,” said Robert Blaine, the chief administrative officer for the city of Jackson, Mississippi. Those vulnerable populations specifically are the poor, the elderly and people of color.

Jackson’s population is more than 80% Black, and in a typical summer, the city has at least 25 days when the heat index — a measure of how temperature feels to the human body — rises above 95 and it opens cooling centers.

This year, the city hasn’t opened the centers at all, Blaine said.

“We’ve been concerned about our ability, our resources, to control social distancing in those spaces,” he said. 

Cities across the country are facing the same conundrum. May was one of the world’s hottest Mays on record, and scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have predicted that this summer will be hotter than average across most of the country.

Even in a typical summer, heat kills hundreds of Americans.

“Cities can’t [just] do one or the other. They can’t either protect their citizens from heat or protect their citizens from COVID-19,” said Kristie Ebi, who researches the health risks of climate variability at the University of Washington. “They have to do both.” 

Before the pandemic, people had a lot of options when the weather got hot, said sociologist Klinenberg. 

“A cooling center doesn’t have to be a government building with the words ‘Cooling Center’ stamped on it. It can be a mall, it can be a movie theater, it can be a restaurant, it can be a coffee shop,” he said. “The problem this summer is that many of those places are closed.”

And that’s forced city officials to improvise, Klinenberg said. “Instead of careful planning, now we’re getting all sorts of ad hoc measures.”

Phoenix has used its convention center as a cooling center. Philadelphia parked city buses with the AC running. New York City is giving away air conditioners to eligible residents.

Meanwhile, other cities aren’t doing anything because they’re under state orders not to congregate in large groups. 

Mark Stemen, a professor at California State University, Chico, who teaches sustainability and climate action, worked on the city’s extreme heat plan. Chico’s cooling centers aren’t open, he said, and that’s a problem because the city has recently gained around 20,000 residents who were displaced by wildfires. 

“These disasters kind of stack up on top of each other. It’s just become more and more difficult for a community like ours,” Stemen said. 

For now, the city’s distributing cold water to homeless camps and low-income residents as temperatures climb above 100 degrees. At the same time, officials are trying to limit the spread of COVID-19 and planning how to deal with this year’s wildfire season. 

And with all of that going on, Stemen said, Chico doesn’t have the capacity to make long-term plans. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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