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Water shutoffs in sharp focus amid coronavirus outbreak

Rabbi Yosef Chesed, left, helps unload bottled water being donated from Lorie Lutz, right, at the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry in Detroit, Monday, March 23, 2020. The global coronavirus pandemic has brought water shutoffs in Detroit and in communities across the nation into sharp focus again amid a crucial time when officials are urging Americans to practice social distancing and basic hand-washing techniques to stop the spread of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

By KAT STAFFORD

Associated Press

DETROIT — The advice is simple and universal: Washing your hands with soap and water is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But for millions of people across the country, that’s not simple at all: They lack running water in their houses due to service shutoffs prompted by overdue bills.

The Rev. Roslyn Bouier remembers when children began to show up at the Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry on Detroit’s northwest side, clutching empty pitchers. It was the summer of 2014 and the kids were parched. But their thirst didn’t come from playing outside — they had no water at home.

That was the year the city of Detroit started its water shutoff campaign, turning off water to 28,500 residential accounts behind on payments. Through the end of 2019, the city has recorded about 127,500 total service cutoffs, according to the water department, though that figure includes households where the water was turned off repeatedly.

“In this pandemic, it’s the people who are living on the margins of society and the poorest of our society that’s being the most adversely impacted,” Bouier said.

Michigan has the sixth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the country, according to Johns Hopkins University’s data tracking of the disease. The state has reported 3,657 cases and 92 deaths as of Friday afternoon. Detroit leads Michigan with 1,075 cases and 23 deaths.

We the People of Detroit co-founder Monica Lewis-Patrick said her organization, which has campaigned for years to end shutoffs, has struggled to find bottled water to deliver to families without service because supplies are being hoarded.

“Water is locked down,” Lewis-Patrick said. “Many people have been texting and emailing me to say ‘What else can we do?’ The world is crying out that there must be a turning on of the water.”

Water advocates and elected officials argue that it’s impossible for families to follow the hygienic coronavirus standards outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization when they don’t have water in their homes. And members of Congress and national organizations are pushing for federal legislation and other action to protect residents facing high water bills and shutoffs amid the crisis.

House Democrats released proposed legislation Monday that included a $1.5 billion allocation to help cover water bills for low-income families and also would ban utility shutoffs during the pandemic.

Michigan U.S. Congress members Rashida Tlaib, Debbie Dingell and Dan Kildee also sent a letter to the congressional leadership Wednesday, signed by 80 members, urging them to take action, citing Detroit’s water shutoffs and the longstanding water crisis in nearby Flint, where lead leached into the municipal water supply. The allocation was not part of Friday’s approved $2.2 trillion rescue package, so Tlaib is pushing for another bill to address shutoffs.

A White House official said Thursday that Wayne County, which includes Detroit, could be the next hotspot for COVID-19.

The coronavirus has sickened more than 566,000 people and killed more than 25,000 people worldwide. For most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

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