Montreal faced with 'double challenge' as heat descends on city during pandemic

As hot and muggy weather descends on Montreal, Public Health Director Mylène Drouin asks for splash pads to be opened to keep kids cool but acknowledges the threat of the spread of the coronavirus limits the options for many vulnerable people.

Public health director asks for splash pads to reopen to keep kids cool, but threat of virus limits options

Montrealers bask in the heat in Mount Royal Park. With cool public spaces such as malls and cinemas closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials are working with the city to find alternatives to people who don't have access to air conditioning. (Jean-Claude Taliana/Radio-Canada )

As hot and muggy weather descends on Montreal, the city's director of public health acknowledged Tuesday her officials are faced with a "double challenge" as they try to keep residents cool and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"We are in a pandemic situation, and we know that the virus is still circulating in the city," Dr. Mylène Drouin told a news conference Tuesday. "We have to be really creative."

Drouin said the public health department has asked that splash pads in municipal parks be opened as soon as possible so kids can cool off. 

Environment Canada issued a special weather statement for the next three days, warning that the humidex could climb to 38. André Cantin, a meteorologist with the department, said Montreal temperatures are expected to be higher than normal, on average, all summer.

In the aftermath of Montreal's scorching summer of 2018, when at least 66 people died from the heat, public health officials tried to figure out ways to better protect people with low incomes and those who are socially isolated, who are at the greatest risk of dying in a heat wave.

Of those who died in 2018, two out of three were 65 or older, and nearly three in four — 72 per cent — had a chronic health condition. 

Drouin said her officials are working with Montreal to find alternatives for people without air-conditioning who no longer have access to cool, indoor public spaces, with places such as malls and cinemas closed. Libraries, for example, are set to open later this week, but not for browsing.

The city is considering opening hockey arenas or setting up cooling stations in parks in a way that allows for physical distancing. 

Drouin encouraged people to stay in cool areas as much as possible, bathe with cold water or use a cool washcloth. 

She also advised Montrealers to check on seniors and those with mental or physical health problems.

These are the hottest, and coolest, areas in Montreal:

While Montreal remains a COVID-19 hot spot, with more than 24,000 confirmed cases and more than 2,500 dead, Drouin said it appears spread is on the wane.

"Even though we are testing more and more every day, we are seeing a reduction in the last few days," she said.

Ensuring long-term care homes have air conditioning

The majority of cases with complications and most of the COVID-19 deaths have occurred at long-term care homes, most of which only have air conditioning in shared spaces — now off-bounds due to concerns about the spread of the virus.

In a statement, Health Minister Danielle McCann acknowledged the virus will make it difficult to offer residents a place to cool off. 

"It's going to be more complicated this year," she said, as facilities will have to be careful not to mix those who have COVID-19 and those who don't.

Caroline Dusablon, an emergency measures co-ordinator with one of Montreal's regional health agencies, the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud, said air conditioning and fans have been approved for use in long-term care homes, despite a concern raised by some about the possibility that circulating air could help spread COVID-19.

"Our current situation is something that our network has never dealt with before," she said.

WATCH | How the heat alert adds a new burden to long-term care residences:

Quebec heat alert adds new burden to long-term care residences fighting COVID-19

1 year ago
'They need to be comfortable and safe,' says Paul Brunet of the Quebec Council for the Protection of Patients. He says that requires air conditioning.  2:34

Adapting services due to COVID-19

Kaitlin Fahey, executive director of the Yellow Door, which offers outreach services for Montreal seniors, said her organization has stopped in-person visits from volunteers to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

But they try to speak with their members at least once a week, she said, and as the temperature rises, they will try to get everyone on the phone more often to make sure they are OK.

"Each summer, we're concerned for our members and now even more so," she said.

Liz Singh is an outreach worker at Head and Hands, a Montreal non-profit. Her team will be handing out water and Gatorade to people who are homeless. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

Liz Singh, an outreach worker with Head and Hands, another Montreal non-profit, will be handing out water and Gatorade over the next few days to people who spend their days on the street.

"These people were already in a vulnerable situation during a heat wave and now it's that much worse during the pandemic," said Singh.

"As hard as it normally is to get away from the heat, right now it's nearly impossible."


Benjamin Shingler is based in Montreal. He previously worked at The Canadian Press, Al Jazeera America and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio

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