Utility Shutoffs Threaten to Worsen Pandemic Pain

I’ve been living and working at my father’s house since the onset of COVID-19, keeping him from having to venture out and risk infection. Late last week, his furnace died, and we were fortunate to have family nearby to move in with while we wait for it to be fixed.

I’ve been truly grateful and mindful of people – especially the elderly – who don’t have such options. Then, this morning, I read this National Journal article, which threw light on the subject from a different angle.

“Throughout the pandemic, states and cities have put in place moratoriums on utility shutoffs,” the Journal writes, “but many have expired and more will be lifted in the coming weeks.”

The pandemic’s economic dislocations have put many people in situations in which they may not be able to pay basic bills, like rent, electricity, heating, and water. Not only that – even people who can move in with family or friends may be putting themselves in danger of infection.

People can’t remain in a home safely without water, said Rianna Eckel, senior organizer for Food & Water Watch, which advocates on environmental and resources issues.

“You can’t do basic things like wash your hands, which is one of the top safety recommendations,” she said. “You can’t bathe or shower; you can’t flush your toilet; you can’t cook; you can’t really clean. That raises the risk for COVID transmissions because you’ll have families who are going to neighbors’ houses, going to friends’ houses, so that they can wash some clothes and cook or maybe take a shower.”

Similar concerns apply to electricity, gas, and steam utilities.

“Those are critical to the ability to heat your home, to cook, refrigeration to preserve foods or medication,” said Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University. “You need electricity to use medical equipment. So all of these are necessary to sheltering in place and to maintaining health, let alone preventing the spread of the virus.”

Benfer added, “The COVID-19 pandemic and social-distancing requirements have created a situation in which utility shutoff is a life-threatening emergency for the majority of Americans.”

In our case, family members had all just been tested for COVID-19 out of concern about a possible exposure (we came up negative). This precaution, too, isn’t readily available to many people. Especially people who have to choose between paying for electricity or food.  

In November, 10 state moratoriums on utility shutoffs are slated to end, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. Thirty-three states have expired moratoriums or did not put one in place.

Lawmakers and advocates have been pressing for a moratorium on water shutoffs, calling for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use the same authority it exercised when the agency issued a stop to evictions. In a House-passed bill providing COVID-19 emergency funding, $1.5 billion was included to assist low-income households with water bills.

“It’s incumbent on utilities to figure out a way to make sure that people’s health is not put at risk by having widespread shutoffs, because that’s just going to make the pandemic all that much worse,” said Erik Olson, a health expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The answer to this problem is not to be shutting off low-income people’s water all over the country.”

Beyond the clear humanitarian concerns, if these issues are not addressed effectively, they could lead to litigation and insurance claims to be resolved for some time to come.

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