Access to running water for hand-washing is essential to slowing the spread of the coronavirus, but in Washington state, some utilities serving the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic have not committed to halting water shut-offs for customers with delinquent accounts.
Seattle and some other cities in King County have suspended shut-offs, but other communities have only committed to being flexible with customers who are behind on payments. In Kirkland, where several coronavirus cases have been tied to a nursing facility, the city has not instituted a moratorium on water shut-offs, though the city said officials are discussing such a step.
There are more than 151,000 public drinking water systems across the country, run by municipalities, regional collectives and private companies — each subject to state and local laws.
And as the nation continues to grapple with the coronavirus, local governments and utility executives will increasingly face the same question as water providers in Washington: whether to forgo shut-offs until the crisis eases.
Federal lawmakers this week publicly urged utility companies to suspend water disconnections. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said shut-offs were creating added danger.
“Access to clean water is a basic human right at all times, but any action that restricts families’ access to water during the current coronavirus outbreak would be reckless in the extreme,” they said in a statement.
And a dozen other members of Congress signed onto a letter calling for the federal government to work with local and state leaders to institute a national moratorium on water shut-offs and restore service for any disconnected households.
“It is unconscionable that during an infectious disease outbreak, like with the coronavirus, communities would continue to shut off people’s access to water,” the letter said. “Surely, in the richest country in the world, we can ensure that every American has access to safe and affordable water.”
To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands thoroughly and often, while also practicing “social distancing.” While hand sanitizer can work in a pinch, experts say that soap and water is best for preventing the spread of diseases, because it helps break down the chemical structure of the virus.
“The most important public thing that we can do is washing your hands,” said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Second is covering up your nose and mouth when you cough in public, but handwashing is absolutely essential.”
That’s hard to do, if not impossible, without running water.
The CDC has no published guidance for utilities or governments that may be considering what to do with delinquent accounts amid the pandemic.
In previous states of emergency, such as Superstorm Sandy, water utilities have suspended customer shut-offs, said Robert Powelson, president of the National Association of Water Companies, which represents private water utilities. Powelson said his organization’s priority has been protecting utility workers and ensuring utilities can continue to operate in the event of a widespread lockdown.
The American Water Works Association, which represents 4,300 public water and wastewater utilities, has recommended that “utilities consider options to postpone water shutoffs during the COVID-19 outbreak.”
No federal entity tracks water costs in America, so it’s difficult to measure how often people have their taps turned off because of nonpayment. A 2019 news investigation of water bills in the six largest cities on the Great Lakes found that water shut-offs were often concentrated in poor communities and communities of color.
“My advice would be for all municipalities to be proactive and put these moratoriums in place just as they’ve become proactive around not cutting off people’s heat in the winter and their air conditioning or electricity in the summer,” Benjamin said. “So, as part of the list of things that organizations or municipalities can do from a policy perspective, a moratorium on cutting off people’s water, right now, should be a top priority.”
Detroit made national headlines when the city water department shut off service to 15,200 customers in the span of four months in 2014. In the years since, some Detroiters unable to pay their balances have had to find ways to live without water.
A recent survey by Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group, collected shut-off rates from the two largest water utilities in each state, and it found that at least 500,000 households — roughly 1.4 million people — lost water service in 2016.
This week, responding to public concern, Michigan announced plans to cover the water reconnection costs for customers of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for 30 days and after that allow residents to avoid disconnection by paying $25 per month.
As the pandemic intensifies, individual communities and companies around the country are making the call to institute moratoriums on water shutoffs.
In Washington state, there have been 457 confirmed cases and 31 deaths from the coronavirus, the most in any state in the country, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. The cases have been concentrated in King County, which includes Seattle.
The three biggest water systems in King County after Seattle — Bellevue, Redmond and Lakehaven — serve more than 500,000 people and have all instituted shut-off moratoriums. Bellevue’s water department, which typically disconnects 30 to 40 customers a month, instituted a moratorium on Wednesday. Redmond suspended water shut-offs this week as a part of the mayor’s emergency declaration.
Lakehaven, which serves 120,000, sent out shut-off notices this week but then decided against carrying them out.
“Our notices are still going out,” said John Bowman, the utility’s general manager. “But we’re not going to shut them off this month just so they have the opportunity to maintain their own home sanitation and to protect the spread of the virus.”
Officials from the cities of Renton and Kent told ProPublica that they had not instituted moratoriums and did not anticipate doing so.
Renton, home to one of Boeing’s commercial aircraft factories, said it would work with customers on a “case-by-case basis,” while Kent said that it has added payment plans.
Around the U.S., Atlanta, Phoenix, Birmingham, Alabama, and St. Louis are among the cities that have suspended water shut-offs. Corix, a company that runs water utilities in the United States and Canada, will also suspend water service shut-offs for nonpayment, except in Alaska. The company also said it would reconnect customers who had previously been disconnected for delinquent accounts.
In San Francisco, the city’s board wants to suspend water cutoffs for 60 days, but the local utilities commission says it cannot act without an order from the city’s health department. After ProPublica asked the water utilities in Long Beach and Los Angeles about their plans, both announced they would suspend shut-offs.
“No one should fear losing their water service because they can’t pay a bill during this public health crisis,” Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said in a press release.
In New York City, the country’s most populous municipality, and in Newark, New Jersey’s biggest city, water is not shut off because of delinquent accounts.
American Water, a private company that provides water service for 1,600 communities in 16 states, including New Jersey, Maryland and California, announced that the company will not shut off customers’ water and will restore service to shut-off customers, after ProPublica inquired about its COVID-19 plans.
“We understand that handwashing and good hygiene is necessary during this time,” the statement reads. “The restoration may take some time, but we will work as quickly and safely as possible.”
Correction, March 16, 2020: This story originally misstated the number of customers Bellevue’s water department typically disconnects. It is 30 to 40 a month, not a week.