Despite the summer heat COVID-19 puts a damper on Brampton’s plan to open cooling centres, while tenants are stuck inside sweltering apartments
With May nearing its end and the Victoria Day long weekend a fading memory, the unofficial start to summer was not celebrated in the usual manner.
The long weekend is traditionally marked by the opening of Brampton’s 14 spray pads and wading pools for children and parents to beat the summer heat. But the spread of the novel coronavirus has made such amenities unavailable this year.
Meanwhile, for tenants, especially those in highrises, they are trapped inside where sweltering temperatures can cause a range of serious medical problems. Unlike rules related to cold winter weather, landlords are currently not required to keep temperatures at safe levels to prevent overheating.
Brampton experienced its first heat wave of the year earlier this week, but emergency cooling centres could not open up. The City traditionally uses its recreation centres as “heat relief” locations, with water and air-conditioning available for people looking to cool off. Such spaces provide badly needed relief for the city’s vulnerable population during hot spells, which are marked by high temperatures and often accompanied by oppressive humidity.
Whether or not such centres will open this year remains unclear, raising questions about how the City will help the vulnerable when the next heat wave hits. If the trend of the past few years continues, with humidex values that routinely reached the high thirties and even into the forties, Brampton and other cities could face another serious public health crisis.
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Regional Councillor Martin Medeiros (Wards 3 and 4) said conversations with Alan Norman, head of the City’s Emergency Management Office, did not result in a plan to open cooling centres this week.
“His professional advice at this time, we didn't have enough time to do it those four days,” as it takes time to get the details around staffing (with many employees working from home), security and other issues sorted out, Medeiros said. But it doesn't mean the topic won’t be discussed down the road.
Norman said cooling centres would fall under the responsibility of Peel Public Health, given the need to ensure the safety and wellbeing of residents, with the City assisting in some instances. But so far, he has not heard anything from the Region on the matter. “If we are able to re-open some of our facilities later in the summer, we will look into possible cooling areas for residents but currently COVID is creating too many issues for us to be able to help on this,” Norman said in an email.
No one in the city wants to see news stories usually associated with countries such as Greece and India, which report the deaths of citizens who succumb during routine summer heat waves.
City spokesperson Natalie Stogdill said staff are looking into interim solutions, in the event that a serious heat wave hits, but did not provide any specific details. “Discussions are underway regarding cooling facilities where measures can be safely implemented to ensure physical distancing is maintained and visitors and employees are kept safe,” she told The Pointer.
One option for help would be the creation of a by-law for the warmer months that mirrors the one implemented in the colder months of the year. Brampton’s Adequate Heating By-law requires temperature in residential rented and leased units be at least 20 degrees Celsius between September 15 and June 1. The by-law allows for the heat to be turned off if such temperature could be achieved without the use of a heating system.
While it’s an option that Medeiros said could warrant consideration, the implementation of a by-law does not come at the “flip of a switch”. The process takes weeks, if not months, and by the time it is approved, the current need for it may no longer exist.
For tenants, they also have the option to purchase their own air conditioning unit. But there are many barriers, from cost, to the lack of mobility for many residents, especially seniors, to the curtailed retail and service sectors.
Daniel Amsler, a housing intake worker at the Mississauga Community Legal Services explained that, legally, the landlord has the option to not agree if a tenant wants to install an air conditioner, unless it was part of the lease agreement to begin with. But in situations where landlords are okay with it, Amsler said compensation for electricity use will likely be needed.
Legislation in the City of Mississauga requires if air conditioning already exists in a rental unit, adequate options for cooling must be maintained. It’s not clear if a similar rule exists in Brampton.
While the City of Toronto also does not have specific widespread regulation for cooling, its messaging on how to keep people cool during the COVID-19 scare is much clearer.
The City requires apartment buildings maintain a designated cooling room that complies with physical distancing guidelines, for residents to use. Apartments are also required to advertise this information, as well as where the closest public cooling spaces are located. If apartment buildings are providing air conditioning to all units, legislation states the temperature indoors cannot surpass 26 degrees.
During the recent heat wave, Toronto opened up six emergency cooling centres across the city. All of them were located in community centres, as their regular network in libraries and inside shopping spaces currently have restrictions in place to mitigate infection spread.
If the pandemic continues to place limitations on cooling options, leaders will have to come up with other solutions. A 2019 study by the Prairie Climate Center (PCC) found heat waves will continue in intensity in the coming years due to dynamics related to global temperature increase, and this year likely won’t be an exception, as the past week has illustrated.
Amsler believes the issue should be discussed at both the municipal and provincial levels. As many outdoor amenities such as splash pads may not open, he said, consideration needs to be given by the province on how relief will be provided. Brampton and Mississauga, he added, should also step up and tell landlords to take care of their tenants. “[They should say] if you have a tenant, you have to take care of them as well, because it's in your best interest that that happened.”
So far, federal health officials have put this responsibility onto the shoulders of regions and municipalities. At a May 26 news conference, Canada’s top public health official, Dr. Theresa Tam, said however municipalities decide to implement public cooling options, physical distancing measures must be maintained. Planning, she said, should include facilities used by the communal population, such as bathrooms. “The numbers of people that can be accommodated may not be necessarily due to the restrictions of that open space, but due to sort of access to these common services…that's actually very detailed planning so listen to your local public health for sure.”
Global warming is playing a role in making longer and frequent heat waves a staple of Canada’s weather reality, the report from PCC found. This won’t change unless Canada’s current level of greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. To illustrate the severity, the report found Ottawa’s average of four heat waves a year could increase to 17 between 2051-2080. “There’s no doubt that with climate change we’re going to see more heat waves,” the report states. Heat waves can have a brutal impact on the physical and mental health of Canadians, causing respiratory problems, cardiac issues and a whole range of maladies directly linked to the body’s inability to stay at a comfortable temperature.
With the current COVID situation, it creates a worrisome picture for all those vulnerable residents who are now at the whim of Mother Nature.
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