Detroit set to restore water service amid coronavirus fears

DETROIT (AP) — Thousands of Detroit residents who have had their water service shut off due to nonpayment of bills can have it restored under a plan that aims to allow them to wash their hands at home as a way to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The Coronavirus Water Restart Plan will be in effect for the duration of the global outbreak of the virus, officials said Monday.

Close to 3,000 households in the city have had water service disconnected, according to a Detroit Water and Sewerage Department spokesman.

Several thousand others have been notified this year of pending service disruption. The shutoffs have spawned protests in recent years by various groups in the city.

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The state will cover the costs of service reconnection for the first 30 days of the plan, according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office. Customers then can have service restored or keep their water on for $25 per month.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.

So far, there have been no confirmed cases in the state of Michigan of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. More than 500 infections have been reported in the United States.

“We know that washing hands is an important defense to this virus,” said Gary Brown, water department director.

The amount a Detroit water customer owes will be deferred until “after the COVID-19 situation is under control,” the water department said in a release.

Customers then will be transitioned to an assistance program or onto a payment plan.

But “that’s not the reality of the poor people who could not afford to pay the market rate in the first place,” said Mark Fancher, Racial Justice Project staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

“The next month they are going to be behind again,” said Fancher, adding that the city and water department should seek a permanent solution such as a plan that takes into account a family’s income.

An affordability program “establishes a rate they can pay,” he said.

In Arizona, the city of Phoenix said it also would not disconnect water service to single-family homes for nonpayment because of the spread of the novel coronavirus and recommendations for frequent hand washing. Residents whose taps have been shut off for non-payment will receive low-flow water service that is adequate for sanitation and cooking, said city spokeswoman Stephanie Bracken. She didn’t immediately have an estimate of how many people would be affected but said customers ultimately will be responsible for paying for the water service.

A Detroit water department spokeswoman said in June 2014 that about 90,000 active customers were delinquent to the tune of about $90 million. That May, the water department mailed 46,000 shut-off notices. The water department said service to 4,500 customers was cut off about that time, but more than half of those paid their accounts in full within a day or two of having service discontinued.

Groups have spent the past six years protesting water shutoffs in Detroit, saying they target the city’s poor. About two dozen demonstrators were arrested in 2018 for blocking a light rail line in downtown Detroit to protest the shutoffs and treatment of poor people.

Statistics may show that more whites are in poverty than people of color, but “poverty still has the face of color,” according to Fancher.

“It still has a black face,” he said. “Policy responds to public perception and public demands. As long as things like mass water shutoffs … as long as the public perception is that these are people of color there is very little concern. There is a default stereotype that poor people and people of color are accustomed to this.”

Washington-based advocacy group Food & Water Watch released a report in 2018 that said an estimated 1.4 million people lost water service in 2016 because they got behind on their bills.

Food & Water Action, the political advocacy arm of Food & Water Watch, said Detroit’s plan to halt the water shutoffs is long overdue and called Monday for a national moratorium on shutoffs.

“The United States has been facing a water affordability crisis for years,” the group said. “Now, threats of the coronavirus are finally making it clear to our elected officials: water shutoffs are not only inhumane but also a public health nightmare.”

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Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this story

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