How the Coronavirus Will Make Phoenix's Heat Problems Worse

People who are already struggling with heat and power bills could be in for a long summer.
People who are already struggling with heat and power bills could be in for a long summer. Robert Brinkley Jr. via
click to enlarge People who are already struggling with heat and power bills could be in for a long summer. - ROBERT BRINKLEY JR. VIA PEXELS.COM
People who are already struggling with heat and power bills could be in for a long summer.
Robert Brinkley Jr. via
It's going to be a hellishly hot, long summer for a lot of Arizonans, with problems flaring up from a combination of the heat and coronavirus.

Social-distancing restrictions mean fewer cooling stations, volunteers, and air-conditioned buildings. More people are likely to choose to live in sweltering apartments because they can't fix an air-conditioner, while others will take short-term comfort in a continued moratorium on utility shutoffs — while piling up long-term debt.

This year, many of the regional hydration stations and heat-relief centers usually open for homeless people in Phoenix won't be operating, city information states. In addition, most municipal buildings, including libraries, remain closed, despite the state lifting its stay-at-home order on May 15. Reached on Tuesday, Tamra Ingersoll, a city spokesperson, said she was about to attend a city policy meeting regarding the reopening of public public pools and libraries, a talk she expected to "come back to heat relief eventually."

The city's Parks and Recreation Department made it clear in a statement last week that the city's 29 public pools would not be opening quickly. The Phoenix City Council has yet to sign off a plan for safe pool operations. Once that happens, it'll take a month for the city to prepare its pools, and hire and train staff.

The shelter in downtown Phoenix run by Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) has air-conditioning, but people will need to weigh the potentially higher risk of congregating indoors with that of enduring the heat. The first case of COVID-19 at the shelter was confirmed on May 8.

The situation's similar in other Valley cities.

"Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, heat relief centers, hydration stations and heat refuge locations are severely limited," Tempe spokesperson Susie Steckner said, adding that facilities like the Tempe Public Library are still closed.

Tempe doesn't usually operate a designated cooling center, but this summer it opened one inside the Cahill Senior Center at 715 West Fifth street. It'll be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, with health screenings at the door and mandatory mask-wearing.

The Salvation Army will open 12 cooling stations across the Valley, including four in Phoenix, with each official Excessive Heat Warning.

March and April temperatures in the Phoenix area were slightly below normal, but the heavy heat is coming, as it always does. We got an early sample in late April, when the National Weather Service issued a heat warning — its earliest ever for the Phoenix area.

Forecasts show that the next few days will be mild, with heat pouring in later next week and a prediction for up to 110 degrees on May 28.

The Bills Aren't Going Away

One of the initial responses to the business closures and start of layoffs back in late March were pledges by utilities — electric, gas, cable TV, and phone companies — not to cut off services for nonpayment.

Governor Doug Ducey announced on March 26 that he'd reached a "cooperative agreement" with power companies to avoid shutting off power to a home "during the remainder of the crisis for inability to pay," and that "no penalties, late fees, or interest will be assessed during this time." The agreement ends May 31.

Ducey, along with the state's utility companies, lobbied the federal government for extra money for utility assistance, and the state Department of Commerce announced on May 14 that it had received $16.5 million in these funds for residents to tap, plus an additional $1 million for Arizona Indian tribes. (Anyone needing such assistance should contact their local Community Action Agency.)

Even without the coronavirus, power companies would have had to keep the electricity flowing for all residential customers throughout the summer because of a 2019 order by the Arizona Corporation Commission. Last June, after a Phoenix New Times article revealed how an elderly Phoenix woman died in her home after Arizona Public Service cut her power because of an unpaid bill, the Corp Comm ordered a moratorium on all shutoffs between June 1 and October 15. That temporary emergency order was renewed for this year, too. The state agency is still working on making permanent rules on disconnections, and hasn't been able to hold a planned in-person workshop this spring on the topic because of the COVID-19 crisis, said Corp Comm spokesperson Nicole Capone.

Last year's moratorium may have saved lives, and it definitely helped thousands of people get through the summer heat more comfortably. But it also left many people saddled with debt. By the end of the moratorium, APS was left with three times the normal amount of unpaid bills it usually sees by summer's end, representing tens of thousands of customers in debt.

click to enlarge APS estimates it will take a $20-30 million hit from unpaid bills this year. - RAY STERN
APS estimates it will take a $20-30 million hit from unpaid bills this year.
Ray Stern
APS began to move forward with power shutoffs in October, but had to stop after the March agreement with Ducey. As of January 2020, the last month for which the company could provide data, customers who didn't pay their bills during the 2019 moratorium still owed $17.9 million, which was was still being collected through payment arrangements.

The company estimates that its financial impact from suspending shutoffs from March to May because of the pandemic, and again from June to October, "will be in the $20-30 million dollar range," said Lily Quezada, an APS spokesperson.

That figure doesn't include the $17.9 million, she said.

Quezada added that supporting customers has been a "top priority" for APS. The company "committed more than $8 million to assist customers and communities affected by the impacts of COVID-19," she said. The money came from a pool paid by shareholders, she added, and did not go to pay off the debt of the people behind on their bills.

APS urges customers to contact the company for help with paying bills, and for neighbors or caretakers of customers to reach out if they believe someone needs help, she said.

Salt River Project, a quasi-public company that isn't subject to the Corp Comm's orders, suspended power shutoffs for residential customers last summer during excessive heat warnings, "in keeping with longstanding billing practices," said spokesperson Erica Sturwold. She indicated it would do that again this summer when the agreement with Ducey ends, and is also waiving late payment fees.

SRP doesn't track how much debt customers carry forward, but estimates "several million dollars" in debt carried over from last summer to the beginning of Ducey's agreement in March.

SRP can't pin down the "full financial impact" of the coronavirus yet, Sturwold said. But as of May 1, SRP has seen its outstanding residential customer debt double to almost $19 million compared to this time last year.

"We anticipate the financial impacts will grow... These debts, combined with reduced revenues associated with lower industrial and commercial electric loads, will significantly impact SRP's budget for the current year," Sturwold said, adding that the company is currently taking steps to review its budget and make recommendations to its board of directors.

While the moratoriums are in place to prevent tragedies and provide economic relief, they do not, so far, appear to be giveaways. Eventually, "somebody is going to have to pay the piper," said Cherylyn Strong, resource center director for St. Vincent De Paul. "The bills are not going to go away."

Strong said she's been perplexed by how relatively few people have taken advantage of the charity organization's utility assistance, which she says has been well-funded this year.

The longer people go without paying their bill, Strong said, it becomes another burden on their lives.

"We want to take that pressure off," she said. "We stand ready and willing and anxious to help people."

The 'Catastrophe Group'

A spike in Maricopa County heat deaths in 2016 brought nationwide attention, and an Arizona State University study later showed the deaths were not due to temperatures that would be considered extreme in Phoenix, but rather to high temperatures combined with the vulnerability of the deceased. Age and homelessness were seen as key factors. Thirty-five percent of the 155 confirmed heat deaths involved unsheltered homeless people, the study found.

The numbers have continued to climb, with 182 deaths recorded in 2018. About 40 percent of the people who succumbed to a heat-related illness were indoors at their time of death, according to county data. As New Times detailed in the June 2019 story about Stephanie Pullman, the woman who died after her power was cut, 80 percent of the indoor deaths were because no air-conditioner was working or present at all. (The air-conditioning status of the other 20 percent was unknown.)

click to enlarge Tents near the homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix, pre-coronavirus. - RAY STERN
Tents near the homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix, pre-coronavirus.
Ray Stern
It seems logical that conditions leading to a lack of air-conditioning would be exacerbated by the current crisis, said Melissa Guardaro, an assistant research professor at ASU's sustainability school.

COVID-19 and the coming days of hot and extremely hot weather will be the "perfect storm" for a miserable quality of life and potential heat-related illness for some groups of people.

"I'm really concerned about the well-being... of people who are homeless and people who were facing an uphill battle with summer even without this," said Guardaro, who works with the city of Phoenix on long-term heat mitigation strategies.

To help consider the "adaptive capacity" people have for heat, Guardaro splits people into three groups. For the first, heat is an inconvenience that is to be avoided, and can be, most of the time. The second group sees heat as a manageable problem — they manage their exposure and are more prepared for extended outings in the heat.

But for the third group, "heat is just a catastrophe."

Guardaro calls this the "catastrophe group," because in interviews, that's how many people in the group described the effect of heat on their lives. The power bill takes a hefty percentage of their income, and they set their thermostats to 85 degrees. The catastrophe group is reliant on the kindness of friends to offer a ride in an air-conditioned car somewhere or just time in a cool house, maybe a dip in a swimming pool, she said. But in the age of COVID-19, social networks are disturbed, leaving them more exposed.

"That's what we're going to see a lot of," Guardaro said.

For Maricopa County's list and map of cooling centers, emergency relief centers, hydration stations, and places to drop off water for donation, click here.

For more utility assistance resources, see below:

Arizona Department of Economic Security

St. Vincent De Paul

APS assistance

SRP assistance
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern