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D.C. Opens 14 Cooling Centers Around The City


Many people are desperate for ways to cool off this summer, and local governments are struggling to help while also keeping people safe from COVID-19. Mikaela Lefrak from member station WAMU here in Washington reports.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: On a recent humid day in D.C., several families are wading around in Rock Creek. It's a shallow, shaded waterway that runs through parts of Maryland and the District.


LEFRAK: Four-year-old Drew Gentles is allowed to touch her toes to the water, but nothing else. The creek has high bacteria levels. Her dad, Andrew, says he's been wracking his mind for places to take her to cool off since the city's public pools are closed due to the pandemic.

Have you found anywhere good to go swimming?

ANDREW GENTLES: Absolutely not. Mikaela, if you know - OK - we'll turn it back to you.


LEFRAK: That suggestion from Andrew's dad, Jimmy Harris, doesn't help much. Earlier this week, the city broke a record for the most 90-degree days in a month. With much of D.C. still on coronavirus lockdown, it's harder to escape the heat. That's why, unlike some cities worried about spreading COVID-19, D.C.'s government decided to open 14 cooling centers around the city. Christopher Rodriguez is the director of the city agency that handles extreme weather.

CHRISTOPHER RODRIGUEZ: This is a service that our residents expect and need, so it was never really discussed that we would not stand up our cooling centers.

LEFRAK: He says they implemented guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep the centers safe. Folding chairs are set up six feet apart, and everyone has to wear masks. So far, the city hasn't traced any positive cases back to cooling centers. But they're not exactly bustling either. I stopped by one of them.


LEFRAK: The room is completely empty. Even though it's in the 90s outside, it only gets about a dozen visits a day. Officials say part of the reason could be fears over contracting COVID-19. At a small park on the other side of the city, Dehkontee Chanchan hands out bottles of cold water to people experiencing homelessness.

DEHKONTEE CHANCHAN: 'Cause a lot of the time, they're, like, out here or they're, like, under a tree or under a bridge just to stay cool. So last week it was like, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, it was really hot. But we was out here.

LEFRAK: She works for a local nonprofit that's partly funded by the D.C. government. She says she used to be able to send people to a nearby public pool to take a shower or cool off, and none of the city's cooling centers are nearby. Chanchan is wearing a mask, but lots of folks aren't, and they're not social distancing. Many of the people here are at high risk of both heatstroke and COVID-19. Despite the risk to her, Chanchan feels it's important to check up on them.

CHANCHAN: If they're not responding to us, we have to call the ambulance to make sure they're OK. It could be a life-or-death situation.

LEFRAK: For people who have homes but can't afford to cool them, the city is helping with energy costs. Even so, the options for cooling down are limited, leaving many people to risk taking a dip in a polluted creek.


LEFRAK: For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington.