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Stopping coronavirus requires hand washing. But what happens when your water gets cut off?

Many Americans are trying to survive the pandemic without one of the basis necessities of human life. That degradation puts us all at risk.
Image: Contract worker Vaughn Harrington delivers a notice by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to inform residents how to restore water service in response to the coronavirus outbreak in Detroit
Vaughn Harrington delivers a notice from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department last month informing residents how to restore water service in response to the coronavirus outbreak.Rebecca Cook / Reuters file

Living without running water on a regular basis is unthinkable to many Americans; surviving without running water in the middle of a pandemic is a daily, degrading gauntlet that forces people to make impossible choices — and it puts everyone in their communities at risk for preventable cases of COVID-19, at a time when health officials extol hand-washing as crucial to staving off disease.

Thousands or hundreds of thousands of Americans may be living through quarantines and stay-at-home orders without running water. A Food and Water Watch tally shows 12 states, the District of Columbia and around 350 local water authorities have banned or announced a halt on consumer water shutoffs and another 19 states have partial moratoriums in effect. (The partial moratoriums are the result of state regulatory com=missions implementing moratoriums that apply only to private utilities.) But only four states, Washington, D.C., and 38 local authorities have mandated or announced the restoration of water service to people who previously had their water turned off.

To give a sense of what the scale of that problem might be, a different Food and Water Watch survey estimated that 15 million Americans were cut off from water service in 2016.

In Chicago, for instance, an unknown number of residents remain disconnected from water service — but more than 150,000 water shutoff notices were issued by the city from January 2007 to April 2019, when the city instituted a moratorium on all water shutoffs. It has not yet required service reconnections for all households.

So families who were going without water before the pandemic often relied on facilities like the local YMCA to obtain tap water and shower; with those facilities now shuttered, they are forced to go longer without it, Juliana Pino, policy director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, told me. A lack of running water also makes it impossible for such families to engage in recommended public health practices such as frequent hand-washing, or forces them to put their health at risk by venturing outdoors more often to fetch water.

“They’re put in this situation of having to choose whether they have enough water to live or whether they can adequately protect their families,” Pino says.

Even in cities like Detroit, which has pledged to restore running water to residents, as of March 31 there were still hundreds, or possibly thousands, of residents without water months into a national health crisis. That's because policies require residents to apply for service reconnection, as well as the dearth of labor necessary to reconnect households. Since 2014, more than 140,000 Detroit homes had been disconnected from water service as part of a city-initiated debt collection campaign.

Given the need, other residents have stepped in to help: We the People of Detroit president and co-founder Monica Lewis-Patrick, whose organization delivers bottled water to homes without service, says that the largely older, Black women who regularly make water deliveries to disconnected households with her organization are putting their health on the line to continue distributing water as the crisis intensifies. (Across Michigan, Black people account for about 40 percent of coronavirus-related deaths.)

New Orleans, which has also been ravaged by COVID-19 cases and deaths, began restoring water service to the roughly 9,000 households it had cut off, but the city’s sewage and water board is now beset by severe staffing shortages and has reconnected just a fraction of those homes. More than 8,000 homes in the city may still be without water service. Troy Robertson, a regional organizer with the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy and a New Orleans native, says that water access issues are “unpeeling” the layers of inequity that exist in the city and the nation at large.

Water shutoffs mostly happen in lower income cities with higher poverty rates and unemployment — but they're not the only places they occur. California, for example, which recently implemented a moratorium on water shutoffs during the pandemic, has not yet required restoration of water service to homes shut off before March 4. More than 200,000 Californians experienced a water shutoff in 2019, according to self-reported utility data.

Among those affected are the legions of immigrant farmworkers who harvest the nation’s food. “Our farmworker communities are feeding the country — they have been deemed essential workers,” says Jonathan Nelson, policy director for Community Water Center. But, he says, “they’re coming home to the reality of ... do they have safe water at all? And if so, can they afford it?”

Nationwide emergencies have a way of illuminating nationwide problems, and the inability to guarantee access to running water has long been one of America’s failures. But while this has often been framed — rightly — as a matter of the equality and dignity to which every American is and ought to be entitled, the coronavirus crisis shows that policies that deny that equality and dignity to members of our community affect efforts to arrest the pandemic’s spread, exacerbating the risk of disease for everyone.

The solutions, though, are simple. Congress must issue an immediate moratorium on water shutoffs and mandate that all utilities reconnect households without water service. Further, since the handful of states and municipalities that require water service reconnections have been set back by the lack of federal funding for safe reconnections, debt forgiveness and emergency water distribution, Congress must set aside such funds to ensure that service reconnections are prompt, affordable and universal.

But, while initial draft legislation in the House of Representatives addressing the pandemic included $1.5 billion to help low-income families offset water costs and implement a ban on utility shutoffs, those provisions were dropped from the $2 trillion package that passed the Senate in March. The stalled House provisions should be resurrected and strengthened in the next round of congressional relief.

No family should have to live without clean and affordable water, let alone during a pandemic. Federal lawmakers must ensure that Americans can wash their hands from disease if they want to keep the whole country safe from COVID-19.