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.

“Communities most vulnerable to Covid-19 are most vulnerable to water shutoffs”

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.

In New Orleans, which has the fourth highest rate of coronavirus infection per capita in the country, only 300 households have so far been reconnected and the city does not know how many remain without running water.

“It’s a package of related factors – institutional racism, environmental injustice, and poverty – which means communities most vulnerable to Covid-19 are the same communities most vulnerable to water shutoffs,” said Grant.

So far, the moratoriums on shutoffs include 12 statewide orders, which apply to private and public water providers, issued by the governors of California, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.

On Monday a coalition of community groups were set to call on New York governor Andrew Cuomo to issue a moratorium on price hikes, fines and shutoffs until 180 days after the end of the state of emergency.

Currently, 8.5 million stateside New Yorkers still face the threat of disconnection if they fail to keep up with bills, while the number of households without running water is unknown. Shutoffs have been banned in New York City since before the pandemic, but in Buffalo for example, taps were turned off on 17,000 occasions between 2015 and March 2019. Buffalo has suspended shutoffs but is not reconnecting those without running water.

“Access to water is a poor person’s issue”

Meanwhile, there are signs of some political will to tackle the issue in Washington.

The House version of the third rescue package included $1.5bn to assist low income households with water bills during the crisis, and a condition which required localities and utilities to suspend utility shutoffs in order to qualify for financial aid.

But the clauses were left out of the final bill approved by the senate on 26 March.

Instead, congressional Democrats want $12bn for water subsidies in the fourth rescue package, with grants for utilities conditional on shutoff moratoriums. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies expects the pandemic to cost $12.5bn in lost revenue due to unpaid bills, debt forgiveness and restoring service.

Last week, House speaker Nancy Pelosi signalled plans to propose $85bn for water projects in a subsequent forthcoming infrastructure bill to stimulate economic recovery.

Almost 28 million people could lose their jobs by May, according to forecasting firm Oxford Economics – more than double the jobs cut during the 2007 to 2009 recession and its aftermath.

Congresswoman Lawrence said: “Access to water has not been a priority in this country because it’s been a poor person’s issue … now it’s a national concern and we have to transform our mindset.”

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