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Coronavirus keeps cooling centers closed across upstate NY

Brett Dahlberg
As the temperature climbed past 90 degrees on Wednesday, Aaron McCullough brought his 3-year-old daughter, Ariana, to the Humboldt R-Center in Rochester to cool off in one of the city's spray parks. But the city's cooling centers were closed to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Aaron McCullough brought his 3-year-old daughter, Ariana, to the Humboldt R-Center on Atlantic Avenue Wednesday hoping for some relief from the heat.

The playground is one of seven spray parks in Rochester that offer cooling water to area residents whenever temperatures exceed 85 degrees.

Except during a pandemic.

The Humboldt R-Center, and all of the city’s spray parks and cooling centers, were shut down on Wednesday.

“It’s 92 degrees out,” McCullough said. “I was hoping that one of these water parks could open up and at least spray a little bit of water on us.”

Instead, he said, sweat dripping off his face, “There’s no water around at all.”

McCullough had bought Ariana a milkshake before they came to the park. It melted in his hand as she played on the slide.

“We’re not staying much longer,” he said. “Maybe 10 more minutes. If there were water, we’d be here till sundown.”

Across New York state, authorities are finding that their usual strategies for protecting people against heat-related health problems are in conflict with their strategies for containing COVID-19.

In Syracuse, where temperatures topped 90 degrees on Wednesday, cooling centers and spray parks were closed “due to the expectation that congregating would occur, resulting in an increased rate of transmission,” said city spokesperson Tajuana Cerutti-Brown.

In Buffalo, a city spokesperson said, cooling centers “remain closed due to the governor’s Pause order.”

Rochester communications director Justin Roj cited the same justification: New York state prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people, and the city worries that opening cooling centers will attract well more than that.

The city does not have the staff to enforce a 10-person maximum at spray parks, Roj said, and indoor cooling centers run afoul of state and federal guidance to reduce virus transmission.

The balance between preventing COVID-19 and preventing heat-related illnesses is a tough one, hospital administrators said.

Keeping cooling centers closed decreases the risk of coronavirus transmission, but it increases the risk of health problems connected to the heat. Opening the cooling centers mitigates the risk of the heat, but it could accelerate the spread of the virus.

“I am very grateful that I am not responsible for making that very complicated decision,” said Dr. Andrea Miglani, the medical director of the Strong Memorial Hospital emergency department.

Miglani said one hot day might result in a slight bump in heat-related hospitalizations, but she said several hot days can bring cumulative effects, and the death toll can climb. Older adults are especially at risk.

“When there’s lots of hot days in a row, I am sure there will be a conversation of, is it worth it to keep cooling centers closed? Is there a way to open cooling centers to smaller groups of people? How can we maintain social distancing in some of the cooling centers,” Miglani said.

Roj said Rochester is working on answering those questions. He said he expects cooling centers to remain closed through phase four of reopening. The Finger Lakes region is currently in phase two.

While cooling centers remain closed, there are still steps people can take to protect themselves from the heat, said Dr. Marita Michelin, the chair of emergency medicine at Newark-Wayne Community Hospital.

“The most important factor is to get to the coolest air possible,” Michelin said. “Wear light clothes. Drink a lot of water. Taking a very cool shower can help.”

Movie theaters, libraries and restaurants -- places that are normally reliably air-conditioned respites on hot days -- aren’t open, so Michelin and Miglani said people should check in on their neighbors and family members, especially those who are older than 65 or otherwise at risk of heat-related health problems.

“This is one of those times where we need to be there for each other,” Michelin said.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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