Access to indoor cooling space in Toronto: Summer 2021

In Progress


Homelessness and Housing

In winter 2021, staff at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions explored the loss of access to informal indoor space during the COVID-19 pandemic. Project maps, report, and details are here.

In June 2021, we revisited access to informal indoor space in Toronto. To do this, we examined City websites, maps and press releases. We also consulted resources provided by the Toronto Drop-In Network (TDIN) and websites on coffee shops and restaurants. Finally, we read the regulations that apply to Step Two re-opening in Ontario, starting June 30, 2021. Given that access to indoor space will remain in flux, we have not created maps for summer 2021.

We did not assess how welcoming specific public spaces are or were to people looking for relief from the heat. There will be significant variation between different community centres, libraries, coffee shops and restaurants.

We did our best to verify all information associated with this project. Please note, this project is not intended as a resource, and information will not be updated. We welcome clarifications and corrections. Please contact us at:

Current as of June 24, 2021. Please note, information may change quickly.

Key messages

  • Access to informal cooling spaces in Toronto remains severely restricted. This leaves many people vulnerable to heat-related harms up to and including hospitalization and death.
  • The City of Toronto’s current plan, which provides eight cooling centres city-wide during heat warnings, does not compensate for this loss of informal cooling spaces.
  • There are a wide range of public buildings and community services that are currently closed or partially-closed that could be used to provide cooling options.
  • Ventilation and filtration are key measures to reduce transmission of COVID-19. When choosing cooling centres, decision-makers should select buildings with large spaces and optimized ventilation. More information here.
  • Toronto would also benefit from a variety of new outdoor cooling spaces with shaded areas, seating and bathroom and water access. These could be provided by the City and community agencies on the grounds of public buildings, in front of community spaces, and on closed streets.
  • The City of Toronto should follow recommendations from organizations such as the Global Heat Health Information Network (GHHIN), an international, independent group of scientists, other academic experts and policy-makers, and immediately stop evictions of  encampment residents. Instead, as per GHHIN, the City should collaborate with grassroots groups and encampment residents to ensure that people have access to shade, water, sanitation and cool indoor space.
  • Right now, people in hospitals who are “discharged to homelessness” may have few options to get out of the heat. Health care providers should consider this in the context of discharge plans.
  • It was difficult for the research staff working on this project to establish what was open and closed at different stages of reopening. If additional cooling space options become available, it will be vital to communicate this clearly online as well as offline through multi-lingual flyers, multi-lingual outreach workers and word of mouth.


As we write this report in late June 2021, access to informal, public indoor cooling space is severely limited in Toronto. When Ontario moves into Step Two of its re-opening plan on June 30, the non-retail areas of malls will still be closed to the public, and what the province terms “loitering” will not be permitted. Indoor dining will also remain closed, restricting access to coffee shops and restaurants.

Public libraries will be allowed to open at 25 per cent capacity in Step Two. In our experience, the Toronto Public Library website is an accurate and up to date source of information about access to their indoor spaces. The rules for community recreation centres in Step Two are somewhat confusing—it is unclear the degree to which they will be accessible this summer in Toronto. There is no one-stop-shop website that is updated regularly with information on all community recreation centre services. In our experience the websites for individual community centres do not always make it clear what is available and when.

More generally, drop-ins for people experiencing homelessness will likely continue to operate at limited capacity; many are not currently offering indoor access. Details are provided and updated by TDIN here. In addition, other community spaces and services will likely continue to run with limited capacity and on shortened schedules city-wide.

Based on Ontario’s re-opening plan, limits on access to indoor space will be in place to varying degrees throughout the summer of 2021 and beyond. If changes to indoor access do occur, it will be important to communicate this clearly through multiple channels, in multiple languages and in accessible formats. For the first stage of this project, a team of researchers explored access to indoor, city-run space during the winter of 2021. We were unable to confirm relevant information for multiple sites following phone calls, emails and internet searches. If additional cooling space options become available, it will be vital to communicate this clearly online as well as offline through multi-lingual flyers, multi-lingual outreach workers and word of mouth.

As we enter summer 2021, there is very limited access to informal indoor cooling space in Toronto. The City of Toronto has established eight emergency cooling locations city-wide in 2021 for use during heat warnings.* They have also created an interactive map, that helps people to locate cool indoor space near them if it is available. It includes cooling centres, and some additional spaces such as drop-ins and one mall. As of June 24 2021, this map demonstrates that most neighbourhoods in Toronto do not have access to cool indoor space, including during heat warnings. This may change as libraries and potentially community recreation centres offer more access during Step Two of the re-opening process.

Given the dramatic loss of informal access to indoor cooling space in Toronto, it is unlikely that eight emergency cooling locations, available only when temperatures are at extreme levels, will be sufficient to address public health needs this summer.

* More on heat warnings here:


The Global Heat Health Information Network (GHHIN) is an international, independent group of scientists, other academic experts and policy-makers. They have put together a series of resources around cooling strategies in the context of COVID-19. Most of these recommendations have the potential to mitigate heat-related health risks in Toronto in the summer of 2021. We highlight select recommendations from GHHIN here, supplemented by recommendations informed by local context, and the information gathered in the first stages of this project. Where recommendations are not paraphrased but quoted exactly as written in GGHIN documents, this is marked in italics.

Please note: in all indoor contexts, air quality is key to reducing the transmission of COVID-19. It’s also important to establish careful protocols around bathrooms. Spaces that allow people to use bathrooms one at a time, and then allow for bathrooms to remain empty for some time between uses are ideal. It is also important for indoor bathrooms to have well-functioning exhaust fans that vent to the outside. These should remain running for as long as the space is in use. More information about ventilation, filtration and bathrooms is available in this backgrounder. Finally, in all cases, as per the GHHIN, “Ensure frequent cleaning and disinfection of shared water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.”

Recommendations in the context of encampments (referred to as “informal settlements” in GGHIN documents):

  • Remove threats of eviction or loss of tenure and provide food aid where people are unable to meet basic needs. At this writing, encampments in Toronto continue to be cleared with heavy police and security presence.
  • Establish mobile water stations for hand washing and distribute drinking water in places where there is limited or no piped water service.
  • Collaborate with grassroots groups and informal networks in encampments to provide necessary services and supports.

Recommendations in the context of outdoor public spaces (some points below also applicable to encampments):

All of the below should follow COVID-19 protocols for outdoor settings set by local public health authorities such as distancing, masking and low occupancy levels.

  • Be creative about creating public, accessible and pleasant cooling options outdoors. Consider unconventional options such as sidewalks, streets and outdoor space attached to public buildings.
  • In Toronto, the City of Toronto, health care organizations and community spaces could:
    — Work with attractions with large outdoor spaces and transit access such as the Science Centre to provide access to shaded outdoor space in proximity to amenities such as drinking water stations and bathrooms.
    — Work with multi-residential buildings and community spaces to establish cooling areas outside using temporary shade structures, seating areas with appropriate distancing, handwashing stations, portable bathrooms and access to drinking water.

Recommendations in the context of cooling centres:

  • Ensure that everyone is within walking distance of a place where they can find relief from the heat, or that COVID-safe transportation is provided. Other cities, such as New York, have set metrics for proximity to cooling amenities. According to the City of Toronto’s interactive cooling map, there are many neighbourhoods right now that do not have access to a cool indoor public space.
  • Look at current building inventory owned by the City or by community partners. Choose large spaces with excellent ventilation. For more on ventilation and filtration in community spaces see here.
  • Work with ventilation experts to establish protocols around occupancy levels and length of time people can spend together in the space.
  • Ensure that everyone—workers and people visiting the sites—has access to a well-fitted and effective mask.
  • Help limit time spent together in indoor spaces by establishing comfortable, shaded seating areas outside of cooling centres.

There are a few caveats to the GHHIN guidance, which was largely created in spring of 2020. Since then, it’s become clear that while fomite transmission (infection via touching infected surfaces) is possible, it is not the main route of transmission. As a result, some recommendations—for example to close public playgrounds—may no longer be appropriate. Local public health authorities should weigh these risks.

Finally, evidence around the importance of airborne transmission as an important route of COVID-19 infection has continued to accumulate over the last year. While GHHIN emphasized strategies such as ventilation and filtration in their 2020 guidance, recommendations related to masking practices, indoor occupancy levels and the central importance of indoor air quality may need to be adjusted. All actions will also depend on local levels of COVID-19 transmission and vaccination.

For more information, contact


Homelessness and Housing


  • MAP Staff

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