WASHINGTON — In Nevada, access to air conditioning can be a matter of life and death.
The desert heat could be even deadlier this summer, which experts predict will be warmer than average. At the same time, people are spending more time at home because of the pandemic and have less access to libraries, shopping centers and other air conditioned public spaces.
The combination is especially dangerous in warm-weather states like Nevada, where people may not be able to safely shelter in place due to extreme heat.
As temperatures climb, at-risk Nevadans may be reluctant to go to cooling centers out of fear of contracting the virus. And air conditioning systems have been associated with spreading the virus, according to a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which could amplify fears about cooled public places.
Rising unemployment threatens to make matters worse. The issue is especially pressing in Nevada, one of a handful of states where more than one in five workers are receiving unemployment benefits, according to a recent report by Heartland Forward.
Nevadans may turn off air conditioning units or set thermostats higher than they would otherwise because they can’t afford to pay cooling bills, which could exacerbate the danger to public health.
“It’s going to be a very tough summer,” said Margaret Wilder, a professor of geography at the University of Arizona. That’s especially true for older people, who are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 and who are increasingly isolated as a result of social distancing, she said.
Other vulnerable groups include low-income people, disabled people, very young children, and people who live in mobile home parks, which are often built on asphalt and have little shade.
AC ‘keeps people safe’
To curb one public health crisis on top of another, Nevada lawmakers are turning to the federal government for help.
“In the Las Vegas heat, air conditioning doesn’t just keep people comfortable — it keeps people safe,” Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus said in a statement. “At a time when so many are struggling to pay their bills, I’m concerned about Las Vegas residents who won’t be able to cool their homes.”
In February, the Trump administration sought to eliminate funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the government’s main heating and cooling assistance program.
But then the pandemic struck, and President Donald Trump signed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package in March that authorized $900 million in additional supplemental funding for the program. The majority of that money went to warm-weather states, which receive less money under traditional funding allocations.
Nevada gets more than $8 million — money Nevada Democratic Rep. Susie Lee called “critical” for vulnerable families at a time of economic crisis.
Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, called the emergency funds a “step in the right direction,” but said more is needed to protect public health this summer.
Created in 1981, the federal assistance program originally focused on helping low-income people in colder regions of the country pay heating bills, according to the Pew Research Center. The program has retained its emphasis on cold-weather states, even as the climate warms.
In 2017, states in New England and the upper Midwest got the most money per capita, while states in the South and West got the least, according to the Pew Research Center. That year, Nevada got less than $5 per person — less than half the national average.
Last week, the U.S. House passed a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package that included an additional $1.5 billion for the energy assistance program. The state’s three Democrats voted for the package and its lone Republican — Rep. Mark Amodei — opposed it.
Titus called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who opposes the package — to “work with us to make this law.”
Spokespeople for Nevada Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto — both Democrats — expressed support for the energy aid program and signed a letter calling for a funding boost in the coming fiscal year. At current funding levels, the program reaches about one in six eligible households, and average grant amounts have lowered over the last decade, the letter states.
“This means that the average LIHEAP grant now covers a lower portion of average home energy costs, leaving many low-income families and seniors struggling to pay for the basic necessity of home energy and having fewer resources available to meet other essential needs.”
But more funding for the aid program — however robust — won’t fully address the need for cooling in increasingly hot summers, Wilder said.
The program caps eligibility at a certain income level. Funds are available only once a year, and applicants in the state must be U.S. citizens and Nevada residents.
Fully addressing energy inequity in the long term requires a change in public thinking, Wilder said. “We need to not view adequate heating and cooling as a luxury but as a human right.”