Cooling centers closed: How Aurora, other communities are providing heat relief amid COVID-19

During a typical summer heat wave, community centers, libraries and other government buildings often serve as a safe haven for Aurora residents seeking air-conditioned relief.

But the coronavirus poses an unusual challenge this year, as most of the traditional cooling centers remain closed or are in the process of transitioning to Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan, city spokesman Clayton Muhammad said.

With temperatures expected to hover in the high-80s and mid-90s through this week and beyond, officials worked quickly to convert the Aurora Transportation Center into a centrally located space for community members to beat the heat — as long as they're wearing face coverings and following other social distancing protocols.

“It's definitely a challenge, but it's one we certainly want to meet and need to meet for our residents in need,” Muhammad said. “It's extremely important. These can be a matter of life or death.”

Exposure to extreme heat is a major public health concern, often alleviated by the availability of cooling centers during especially hot or humid days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But such facilities also can lead to the congregation of at-risk individuals — including older adults or people with underlying conditions — potentially providing a “route for the transmission” of the COVID-19 virus.

That's why two homeless shelters serving Lake and Cook counties, which typically double as cooling centers, decided early on to house their clients in hotels through the pandemic.

“There are too many people to put in one building,” said Meghan Powell-Filler, executive director of PADS Lake County.

The agency is sheltering about 160 people in hotels — a significant spike from the 40 clients it serves each summer, she said.

The Palatine-based Journeys|The Road Home also removed its roughly 100 clients from shelters and placed them in hotels, Executive Director Beth Nabors said. That costly solution — about $18,000 per week — is expected to see these clients through the extreme heat expected in the coming days.

“Weather is always on the forefront,” Nabors said. “We're always paying attention to the weather.”

Many suburban facilities that would traditionally open as cooling centers, such as the Elgin and Bartlett police station lobbies, remain closed to the public. The Palatine Township Center is waiting until its large meeting room is available Aug. 10 so seating can be spaced out accordingly.

In Schaumburg and Arlington Heights, village officials say they have not had any power outages or other reasons to activate cooling centers. But Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus said the coronavirus “would be a factor if we did have an event, for sure.”

Some municipal buildings throughout the suburbs, including in Naperville and Geneva, have implemented special restrictions for residents seeking relief from the heat.

According to CDC guidelines, visitors, staff members and volunteers should undergo verbal screenings or temperature checks. The facility should be cleaned frequently, seating should be spaced at least 6 feet apart, and “prevention supplies” should be available, such as disposable masks, soap, hand sanitizers, tissues and trash baskets.

At the Aurora Transportation Center, signs have been placed throughout the building and additional employees are on hand to enforce distancing requirements. The facility at 233 N. Broadway Ave. is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Similar guidelines will be in place when three branches of the Aurora Public Library reopen as cooling centers Monday, officials said. The facilities are available by appointment only from noon to 6 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

The additional cooling locations will ensure that all areas of Aurora are covered, Muhammad said.

“This year does present a hurdle for us,” he said, “but definitely not an insurmountable one.”

• Daily Herald staff writers Mick Zawislak and Eric Peterson contributed to this report.

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