Usually when the temperature climbs precipitously in Massachusetts, residents who don’t have air conditioning at home have a range of options to stay cool ― they might go to a public pool, spend the day at a community center, or meander around the mall.
But this year, many of those free and easy-to-access strategies are off the table or feel too risky because of the coronavirus.
Climate change has made extreme heat a feature of summertime in New England, and even before the pandemic, the ability to stay cool was an unequally distributed resource across the state. Now, some community groups fear that COVID-19 will leave lower-income people roasting at home, while wealthier people relax in chilled air or escape the city entirely.
“Extreme heat and extreme cold is something that we’ve been particularly concerned about, since a lot of folks are living in housing without central air, or they don’t have AC units,” said Lisette Le, the executive director of the nonprofit VietAID in Dorchester, which is not running typical programming this summer out of concern for its senior members.
Excessive heat can be dangerous. When the heat index, or the “feels like” temperature, rises to 103 degrees, people can begin to experience heat exhaustion or life-threatening heat stroke, said Zachary Zobel, a scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center.
“Those days are relatively uncommon in the Northeast historically,” Zobel said, but “they are starting to increase.” On average over the next decade, we can expect up to 14 days a year when the temperature here reaches that dangerous peak, Zobel said.
Soaring temperatures will especially affect low-income and minority communities.
“The same communities that have been most impacted by the COVID pandemic are the communities that have the most vulnerability and exposure to heat,” said Rebecca Davis, deputy director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, or MAPC. In a study of heat vulnerability across Greater Boston, the organization found that the top five municipalities most vulnerable to extreme heat were Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, Revere, and Boston — the same cities that top the area’s list of COVID-19 rates each week.
Typically, cool public spaces ameliorate some of the concern. Last summer, for example, Boston activated its cooling centers for a three-day period in June during a heat emergency, which the mayor declares when there are two or more days with a 95-degree heat index. On average, 4,000 people a day flooded into the centers that weekend, according to a spokeswoman for Boston Centers for Youth & Families. This summer, most BCYF facilities, which become cooling centers during heat emergencies, are closed.
The reason for unequal cooling is one of both cost and city planning. Nationwide, about a fifth of households below the poverty line do not have any air conditioning equipment, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Even if a household has an air conditioning unit, the cost of actually running it may be unaffordable. A quarter of low-income households in Boston spend more than 12 percent of their income on energy bills, making them significantly “energy burdened,” according to a 2016 study from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.
“The cost of having air conditioning is a concern, especially this year, when people have been hit so hard,” said Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of the Chelsea-based climate justice group GreenRoots. “This year, people are really going to be thinking, ‘Do I want to put an AC unit in and jack my bills up, while I have rent to pay and I still might not have my full hours back?‘ ”
Bongiovanni said she was particularly worried that Chelsea residents hurt by the economic collapse will be waiting in line for food and other aid in the baking heat.
Unequal heat is also a matter of urban design. Most of Chelsea, for example, is a heat island, with temperatures outside rising 40 degrees higher than the ambient air in a nearby neighborhood, Bongiovanni said. On heat islands, much of the ground is covered in concrete or asphalt and there are few trees. Some residents say they can feel the temperature change when they leave the city.
Mayra Romero, who lives in Chelsea, was recently visiting family in Wakefield and noticed a “huge difference.”
“Chelsea needs more green spaces,” Romero, who is 43, said in Spanish. “We need more trees.”
Romero works at a restaurant, and said she and other workers have been sweltering in their masks in the poorly ventilated kitchen.
“You get even more dehydrated than normal. I feel like I get dizzy,” Romero said. At home, Romero keeps the AC units running, which spikes her bills.
“The electricity bill almost doubles in the summer,” she said. “There’s no real option. Because it’s so extremely hot that you feel desperate.”
For seniors, the effects of heat can be even more pronounced, and typical activities at air-conditioned senior centers or trips to nearby parks and lakes largely aren’t happening.
“This is the year I’ve heard the most about them worried about being cool,” said Cindy Hickey, executive director of the Council on Aging in Somerville, which hosted an AC drive late last month. “They’ve been so cooped up because of COVID-19.”
Somerville, Chelsea, and other cities are experimenting with a range of strategies to keep people cool, from increasing utility assistance to distributing air conditioners, while staying focused on the need to “green” city blocks with trees, parks, and open space. Community groups are also looking into low-tech solutions for this summer, Davis from MAPC said, from handing out blinds to installing misting tents to setting up wellness checks during extreme heat waves.
“If you look at other communities that have more tree canopy cover, they’re going to be a lot cooler,” said Bongiovanni. Chelsea, on the other hand, “is just essentially trapping heat.”