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Cities are adapting to a heat wave in a pandemic that has closed many cool places

Cities in Eastern Canada are adapting their heat wave-response plans, as pandemic restrictions have closed many places where people normally go to beat the heat.
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Cities in Eastern Canada are adapting their heat wave-response plans, as pandemic restrictions have closed many places where people normally go to beat the heat. 

In Ottawa, where a heat warning was issued on Saturday, the city has opened four emergency cooling centres. Councillor Riley Brockington, who called for the centres to be opened early, said they're more important than ever this year. The heat warning remains in effect until Wednesday. Environment Canada forecasted highs of over 30 C for Monday and Tuesday with overnight lows above 20 C.

"Particularly with malls closed, libraries closed, other public facilities that people could go to, the options are very limited," he said in an interview Monday. 

"We have thousands of people, if not tens of thousands of people in Ottawa who live without air conditioning. It's not about being a little bit uncomfortable, it's the prolonged effects of being in the heat without relief."

In Montreal, where the temperature remained above 30 C on Monday afternoon, Environment Canada forecasted similar temperatures for Tuesday and warned that humidex values could approach 40.

Sam Watts, the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission, said his organization began implementing its heat wave plan on Thursday, distributing bottles of water to people experiencing homelessness and encouraging them to stay in the shade or inside. 

He said he's particularly worried about isolated older adults who live in apartments with little air circulation and no air conditioning. "I fear for them more than I actually fear for the people who are experiencing homelessness, because the plan that we have for people experiencing homelessness is a fairly robust citywide plan," he said in an interview Monday. 

Many of the "logical spots" that people would go to stay cool remain closed, Watts said. "They can't even sit in a shopping centre." 

In Toronto, where the temperature rose above 30 C for the third straight day on Monday, emergency cooling centres have been open since Saturday.

City spokeswoman Deborah Blackstone says the city has updated its strategy for extreme heat "to ensure that emergency heat relief opportunities are available and accessible to those who may need them. Many facilities that were part of the City’s 2019 Heat Relief Network of cool spaces across Toronto are closed due to COVID-19, as they were in 2020."

Mask wearing, handwashing and distancing are mandatory in emergency cooling centres, she wrote in an email Monday, adding that here will be separate areas for people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 or who have symptoms of the disease.

Meanwhile, Toronto Mayor John Tory said Monday that city staff are opening water fountains in parks, which had been shut off to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"I'm sorry, because it was a very hot day on the weekend, that people didn't have access to those water fountains, but I think it's much more important, when they have access to them, that it is safe and there will be signage put up now to ensure it remains safe," he told reporters.

Earlier Monday, Ontario announced that its reopening plan will be moved ahead to Friday as health indicators there continued to improve. The government had originally planned to begin the first step of the reopening plan on June 14.

The new rules will allow outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people. Some outdoor dining, as well as outdoor fitness classes, outdoor religious services and camping will also be allowed to resume.

The Ontario government said 72 per cent of adults in the province had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Sunday night, well above the 60 per cent goal set for the reopening date.

In New Brunswick, the news was less promising as the province announced a delay in reopening after failing to meet its vaccination target. Health officials had aimed to administer at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine to 75 per cent of residents over 12 by the end of Monday.

Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters only 70.3 per cent of those eligible to receive a vaccine had done so by Monday morning. Higgs said the province will need another four or five days to meet its target and begin the first phase of its reopening plan, adding that all health-protection restrictions will remain in place until the target is reached.

In Montreal, residents were able to dine inside restaurants Monday for the first time in eight months. Montreal, its northern suburb Laval and several other municipalities became the last parts of the province to move out of the highest pandemic-alert level.

Other Quebec regions saw restrictions relaxed further on Monday, including three that are now at the province's lowest alert level. Health officials reported 194 new cases of COVID-19 and three more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

In Nunavut, health officials announced fully vaccinated travellers will be exempt from the territory's 14-day isolation requirement starting June 14. Travellers will have to apply for an exemption and show proof of vaccination, chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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