Philly to open spray grounds as COVID complicates city’s response to dangerous heat

City officials are trying to balance social distancing needs against the health risks of prolonged exposure to heat.

Gilberto Padilla, 78, and Carmen Román, 70, set up their chairs in the shade in Norris Square to beat the heat. (Catalina Jaramillo/WHYY)

Gilberto Padilla, 78, and Carmen Román, 70, set up their chairs in the shade in Norris Square to beat the heat. (Catalina Jaramillo/WHYY)

Noelia Ortiz, 67, lives with her daughter near Hunting Park, in North Philadelphia.

Ortiz suffers from a heart condition and when it’s extremely hot, she feels like she can’t breathe, she says. Her daughter also has a health condition, she said. Still, they can’t afford to have air conditioners at home.

“So when the heat comes, I have to fan myself, fan myself, fan myself,” she said in Spanish, mimicking the action with her hands. “And I don’t open windows or doors, so that the heat doesn’t come in.”

Every year when temperatures start to rise, the city issues special recommendations on how to stay cool during an extremely hot day — find a nearby public space with air conditioning or a pool, call the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging HeatLine to get advice on what to do if someone is feeling sick and other tips for staying healthy in dangerous heat.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

But this year, when heat-vulnerable populations also face the threats of the coronavirus, the city waited until this Thursday to share some guidance. Philadelphia has already experienced six days of temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Some of this guidance is what we offer each year, but obviously the restrictions created by the threat of COVID-19 make this summer unlike any other,” said the city’s managing director Brian Abernathy.

Indeed, finding an open public pool near you this summer will be impossible since they’re closed for the season. Next Monday, as an alternative, the city is opening 91 spray grounds across the city and distributing “cooling kits” including umbrellas, tents, cooling rags and misting fans for use by people on the city’s 100 Playstreets.

But one critical question remains unresolved: Where can Ortiz, and the thousands of other Philadelphians who are vulnerable to the heat and living without AC, go to escape extreme heat?

Abernathy said the city is working on an answer.

“We are currently in the process of determining how we can safely open facilities, such as libraries and PCA [Philadelphia Corporation for Aging ] senior centers during those heat events,” he said Thursday.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Abernathy acknowledged the urgency of the situation and said that the city would be ready to provide information when heat emergency strikes.

“We will be providing specific details when we are closer to a potential heat health emergency,” he said. “We will, however, make sure that those in need, that need to go somewhere, have somewhere to go.”

‘Like turkeys in the oven’

Aida Ortiz, a 61-year-old living by herself in Upper Kensington, said she didn’t know of any programs to help her deal with the heat, or air conditioning costs. She doesn’t have an air conditioner unit at her house because she can’t afford it.

“It’s too much electricity and I’m by myself,” said Ortiz, who suffers from high blood pressure.

Evelyn Cancel didn’t know of them either. She’s a single mother and said she usually takes her kids to the beach when it’s too hot. Not this year, she said.

“How are we with the heat? Like turkeys in the oven, cooking ourselves!” she said in Spanish. “I need like two more air conditioners. I’m getting by with a small one for my kids that sounds clack-clack-clack. But that’s what I got.”

But in the meantime the city figures out a complete heat emergency plan, Abernathy said every resident and family should make a plan of what to do in case of heat waves.

“Don’t wait for the heat waves to figure out what to do, make a plan now,” he told residents.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said heat can be very dangerous for elderly people, people with chronic medical conditions, including those with psychiatric or developmental disabilities, and people who live alone — about 36% of all people age 60 and over live alone in the city, according to PCA.

“More people die from heat, as a risk, than from all other natural disasters combined. More people die from heat waves than hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes or floods,” Farley said.

Heat disproportionally affects low-income populations. In Philadelphia, poorer neighborhoods like Ortiz’ Hunting Park in North Philadelphia, Point Breeze in South Philadelphia, and parts of Haddington and Cobbs Creek in West Philadelphia, can be more than 22°F hotter than other areas of the city. Those areas have higher rates of asthma and other health conditions, and less access to trees, air conditioners and private cooling centers.

Experts say groups at higher risk of illnesses and death associated with extreme heat are very similar to the groups that are at high risk for poor outcomes with COVID-19. And so Farley said there is a risk in having those people together in one space, such as a cooling center.

Abernathy said the city is working with partners to balance social distancing needs against the health risks of prolonged exposure to heat.

North Philadelphia’s Ortiz said if her senior center at Norris Square would open, she’s still not sure if she would go.

‘I’m afraid, you can get infected because there would be a lot of people,” she said in Spanish.

Philadelphia officials told PlanPhilly a heat emergency plan was going to be presented by the end of May. A week ago, the city said the plan was still work-in-progress. On Thursday, Abernathy said it’s not that the city doesn’t have a heat emergency plan yet, but that they can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen in the future.

“I can’t tell you if COVID-19 is going to continue on a plateau or we’re going to have a huge spike in August, I don’t know that. And so we plan for contingencies. And so we do, we have a plan and then we also have plan B plan C and plan D, if we have to react to that, cause that’s what emergency management does.”

Subscribe to PlanPhilly

Philadelphia is not the only city dealing with uncertainty, and yet other cities like New York City and Washington, DC, have activated their heat emergencies plan already. NYC started offering 330,000 air conditioners to low-income residents over 60 last week.

Abernathy didn’t provide information on the city providing free air conditioners or fans to those in need. But said the city is also working on ways to communicate better with residents about resources available to stay cool during the summer, such as the state’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that help residents pay bills.

According to a community-driven heat plan piloted by the city last year in Hunting Park, residents were not familiar with city assistance programs, access to cooling centers, PCA’s heatline or free-tree programs.

Noelia Ortiz’s plan for Friday, when a high of 95 is forecast by the National Weather Service Forecast Office at Philadelphia/Mount Holly, is to fan herself, with the windows closed. Which is exactly what people should not do, according to Dr. Farley.

People should try to get to an air-conditioned space. If they can’t get air conditioning, they should open a window, use fans and drink plenty of fluids.

“If anything happens, my daughter could call 911,” Ortiz said.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal