Statewide Moratorium on Water Shutoffs Ends as COVID-19 Cases Surge
On Tuesday, the day before a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs expired, multiple news outlets reported that people in Michigan were being infected by COVID-19 at a rate higher than anywhere else in the country.
Think about that.
With the pandemic surging, our state’s legislators went on spring break without ensuring water would continue flowing into every Michigan home. That means there is now no guarantee people will continue to have running water and be able to use one of the simplest, most effective measures available to stem the virus’ spread: frequent hand washing.
Again, think about that.
Shutoffs at any time are dangerously short sighted, but that fact is especially true now.
In the days before the moratorium was allowed to expire, researchers from Cornell University, in conjunction with the group Food & Water Watch, released the results of a study that suggests a national moratorium on water service shutoffs could have prevented almost half a million COVID-19 infections and thousands of deaths.
"This research clearly shows us that the pain and suffering caused by [the] Covid pandemic was exacerbated by political leaders who failed to take action to keep the water flowing for struggling families," Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group that has been tracking state and local water shutoff moratoria throughout the pandemic, said in a statement.
Until now, Michigan, by halting shutoffs early last year, was one of the states that acted to alleviate that pain and suffering, not exacerbate it. Not any longer.
“This is very disappointing,” state Senator Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) said about the moratorium’s expiration. “Apparently, a lot of people in the Legislature think the pandemic is over.”
On Wednesday, as the moratorium on shutoffs ended, Michigan experienced 6,311 new corona virus cases. Ten more people died from the disease that same day, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 16,092.
Although currently leading the nation, Michigan isn’t the only state seeing COVID-19 cases surge.
“Besides Michigan, Covid-19 case numbers have been rising sharply in states like Hawaii, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut,” NBC News reported. Those increases prompted federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky to warn of "impending doom" if Americans fail to continue taking safety precautions.
Precautions such as frequently washing your hands – which can’t be done if your water has been shut off.
The city of Detroit, which is currently being sued by the ACLU and others seeking a permanent end to shutoffs and the establishment of affordable rates, has announced it will continue a moratorium through 2022. A story in The Detroit News last week indicated that many local water systems in the Detroit metro area won’t immediately resume shutting off water to delinquent customers. However, with no statewide ban in place, there’s no telling how long that will last. It should be an issue of concern throughout the state.
In December, the Natural Resources Defense Council, in collaboration with the People’s Water Board Coalition, reported that an “estimated 800,000 Michiganders throughout Michigan are known to be behind on their water bills and could face water shutoffs” based on an analysis of data it had compiled.
Before the moratorium expired, Sen. Chang introduced a bill that would extend the ban on shutoffs through June 30, but the Republican-led Legislature let the moratorium expire without voting on Chang’s legislation before leaving on a two-week break. She has hopes legislators will take much-needed action when they return. But other efforts are also underway.
“Fearing a cascade of disconnections on the horizon, U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan said they requested a meeting with the Department of Health and Human Services about the fact that water assistance hasn’t been released,” The Washington Post reported last week. “The two Democrats have also raised the matter with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and are working to set up a meeting on the matter.”
The problem at the federal level, according to the Post, is this:
“None of the roughly $1 billion in new stimulus funds allocated for water assistance has reached Americans in need, nearly three months after Congress authorized the first tranche of money. In the meantime, the Biden administration has resisted calls on Capitol Hill to instate a national moratorium on water and electricity shutoffs, a policy that might have covered people until federal assistance arrives.”
In addition to issuing an executive order to stop all water and critical utility shutoffs nationwide, the Biden administration is also being pressured to throw its support behind the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability Act of 2021, which was recently introduced by U.S. Reps. Brenda L. Lawrence (D-Southfield) and California’s Ro Khanna (D-San Jose). Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the companion legislation in the Senate.
Supported by a diverse collection of over more than 500 organizations, the WATER Act would allocate nearly $35 billion a year to fund drinking water and wastewater improvements across the country.
Meanwhile, activists are preparing for the worst. The group We the People of Detroit recently “purchased about 68,000 water bottles and set in motion a plan to truck them to families across the state out of a fear that other government aid may not reach them in time,” according to the Post.
“There is no policy, no safety, after March 31, from seeing massive numbers of people at risk,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick, president and CEO of We the People of Detroit.