Millions in US at risk of ‘water shutoffs’ amid layoffs triggered by pandemic

Millions of Americans risk losing running water if they fall behind with bill payments in coming months, as mass layoffs triggered by the coronavirus pandemic force families to make impossible tradeoffs on paying household expenses.

Around two-fifths of the country rely on water utilities which have not suspended the policy of shutoffs for non-payment, despite public health warnings that good hygiene – specifically frequent hand washing – is crucial to preventing spread of the highly contagious virus, according to data analysed by Food and Water Watch (FWW) and the Guardian.

The virus has spread exponentially in the past month with 336,912 confirmed cases in the US as of Sunday, including 9,615 deaths, according to data collated by the New York Times. An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Americans are expected to die from Covid-19 complications, even if mitigation measures like good hygiene and social distancing are fully implemented.

“This is an emergency and the priority is to stop the spread so this is a no brainer, everyone must have access to water … this should not be a partisan issue,” said congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, who is pushing federal intervention.

In addition to the public health toll, the economic impact of the pandemic is already devastating families, with close to 10 millon people filing for unemployment benefits during the second half of March and an unprecedented spike in demand for emergency aid at food banks. One in two American adults have either no emergency savings or not enough to cover three months of living expenses, according to Bankrate’s 2019 Financial Security Index.

Yet despite the evolving economic and health crises, less than 60% of the population have so far been protected from water shutoffs. And just 11% of these utilities have explicitly pledged to reconnect households currently without running water due to unpaid bills.

“As unemployment reaches record highs, millions of Americans are going to have to choose between paying for food, rent and bills … water is not something people should have to tradeoff,” said Mary Grant, director of water at FWW.

There is no national database tracking shutoffs or the number of US households left without running water. But in 2016, one in every 20 households were disconnected by public water departments, leaving an estimated 15 million Americans without running water.

The highest shutoffs rates were concentrated in southern and rural states including Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida and Oklahoma. Some of the hardest-hit towns and cities including New Orleans, Detroit, Milwaukee, Mecklenburg, Ada and Dekalb are now Covid-19 hot-spots, according to analysis by the Guardian.

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