Doctors, enviros want water shutoff moratorium extended after COVID-19 pandemic

Gov’s order calls for water services restored by April 12

By: - April 2, 2020 4:59 am

Monument to Joe Louis, Detroit | Susan J. Demas

On Saturday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced an executive order directing public water utilities to immediately restore water service for every Michigander whose water has been shut off due to non-payment.

The order is effective for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak, although some social justice groups and medical professionals argue that it should continue for longer. A grant program will also be implemented to reimburse high-risk areas for reconnecting their homes to water supplies, as the directive does not absolve anyone from paying past-due bills.

“Due to the vital need to ensure that Michigan residents have access to clean water at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is reasonable and necessary to require the restoration of clean water to residences across the State of Michigan throughout this state of emergency,” Whitmer’s executive order reads.

The move was a turnaround from Whitmer’s previous policy on the shutoffs as it relates to the COVID-19 outbreak. As recently as the first week of March — before the first cases of the virus were confirmed in Michigan — her administration, state health department officials and the city of Detroit had declined to take action on shutoffs.

Just a day before the state’s first cases were confirmed on March 10, however, that course was reversed. Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) announced a plan to restore service to Detroiters for the duration of the outbreak.

Executive Order 2020-28 takes that a step further, requiring water service reconnection to all Michigan residences that have had theirs shut off due to non-payment. It also establishes a $2 million fund through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to help high-risk local communities comply with the order. EGLE Director Liesl Clark said in a statement that the department is also working with water plant operators to ensure the continuation of water services.

All public water utilities that shut off services due to non-payment must report to the State Emergency Operations Center about the state of water access in their service areas no later than April 12 . If that report does not satisfy the executive order’s list of requirements, the utility must submit a supplemental report every 30 days until it does meet the requirements.

Freshwater Future and We The People of Detroit, two activist groups that have been leading the fight against water shutoffs, held a media teleconference Wednesday morning to discuss the order. Medical professionals from Michigan and other states also spoke on the call about the importance of access to clean water.

Monica Lewis-Patrick, president and CEO of We The People of Detroit, said that the group is “very thankful” to Whitmer for the executive order, but added that local governments must be held accountable for acting with integrity and making sure local water service providers follow Whitmer’s list of requirements.

“We’re doing our part in flattening the curve by staying home. They must do their part by providing the primary resources that we have to stave off this disease: Water to those that don’t have it,” Lewis-Patrick said.

She also called for an affordable water structure to be developed, so that even after the COVID-19 outbreak subsides, residents can still have access to water and proper sanitation.

Dr. Wendy Sternberg, a primary care physician in the Chicago area and executive director of the nonprofit organization Genesis at the Crossroads, said that not being able to wash your hands properly can lead to an accelerated spread of a virus like COVID-19.

Since it also is spread by fecal matter, even a parent doing a simple diaper change can contract the virus from their child if they cannot wash their hands afterwards. In this way, being able to do a proper hand wash is just as important as personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves during this outbreak, Sternberg said.

Sternberg argued that shutting water services back off for non-payment after the COVID-19 outbreak is over would be disastrous, as people need access to clean water at all times to combat other infectious diseases. COVID-19 may also come back in the fall, Sternberg said, “because pandemics come in waves.”

“The notion that you could turn the water back on just for this pandemic, and then turn it off, is equally unconscionable as turning it off for the first go-around,” Sternberg said. She also criticized the notions that people who get their water shut off are somehow “lesser” or even brought the heightened risk upon themselves.

“If people at the margins have an increased disease burden because of the unfortunate circumstances they’re in, that puts all of us at risk. We’re all in this together. If we’re going to survive this, it’s going to be that all boats in the pond rise up, not just some,” Sternberg said.

Dr. Wendy Johnson, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Global Health at the University of Washington, criticized water shutoffs being allowed to occur in the first place.

“I really hope that we learn a lesson from this,” Johnson said. “Not just, ‘Let’s turn on the water now for a few months and then turn it back off again when the rich people don’t have to worry about a virus.’”

Johnson argued that the most vulnerable people will be hit hardest by the COVID-19 outbreak in America due to practices like water shutoffs due to non-payment, which only highlights that letting that happen at all is preventing access to a “basic human right.”

“If you’re [changing those policies] now, it means that our practices previously were wrong and criminal,” Johnson said.

Mary Brady-Enerson, Michigan Director of Clean Water Action, said the group thanks Whitmer for “taking this important and potentially life-saving action,” and said that the COVID-19 crisis has underscored the importance of access to clean water.

Brady-Enerson added that Whitmer should take the order one step further by establishing water distribution stations in communities with high levels of water shutoffs until services are fully restored.

“We applaud Gov. Whitmer for her incredible leadership in response to this public health crisis and hope she will take that one last critical step as quickly as possible,” she said.

Conan Smith, president and CEO of Michigan Environmental Council, said the executive order “should not have been necessary,” but is a critical response to an important and ongoing problem.

“Let’s hope that the public officials who control access to water for more than half the state’s population take a clear lesson from Gov. Whitmer’s declaration and rethink how, why and if ever one of our neighbors should be shut off from water,” Smith said.

Michigan League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Lisa Wozniak also issued a statement in support of the order..

“[Whitmer’s] initiatives are solid steps forward in turning the water on, keeping it on and making it affordable for all Michiganders,” Wozniak said, adding that work from impacted citizens and activists helped to make this an “urgent priority” for Whitmer’s administration.

“Nothing makes the phrase ‘water is life’ more real than when you don’t have it for hydration and basic sanitation during a deadly virus,” Wozniak said.

Requests for comment on extending the shutoff moratorium weren’t returned from Duggan’s or Whtmer’s offices.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).