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As COVID-19 spreads, Detroit struggles to restore water to shutoff customers

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Only 73 households have successfully gotten their water turned back on

Closeup of a running faucet with silver tap and two hands covered in soap suds. Shutterstock

Due to concerns about coronavirus, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced last Monday that the city would suspend further water shutoffs and start restoring service. But it’s had a hard time getting customers without running water to enroll in the new plan.

Prior to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, Duggan said that a moratorium on shutoffs is inadvisable because it would encourage nonpayment. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office also said that lack of running water did not constitute a “public health emergency.”

But numerous medical experts have established that hand washing is an essential way to prevent the spread of COVD-19, and hand washing is obviously a challenge for the nearly 3,000 households without running water.

Finally, on March 9, the city and state amended their policy and announced the Coronavirus Water Restart Plan. Anyone without water service or who has a pending interruption can get it turned back on for a $25 fee (if residents sign up within 30 days, the state will wave the fee). Customers can keep their water on for $25 a month for the duration of the outbreak.

No actual payments will have to be made during this time—the amount owed will be deferred until after the COVID-19 situation passes, after which customers will need to enroll in a payment plan. (Call the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency at 313-386-9727 to make an appointment.)

“As long as COVID-19 remains a health concern, no Detroit resident should have concerns about whether their water service will be interrupted,” Duggan said in a release.

But signing people up for the plan has proven difficult. As of Friday, March 13, only 73 households had their water reconnected.

The problem appears to be insufficient resources. Bridge Magazine reports “waits of an hour or more” at the help telephone line. Detroit Water and Sewerage director Gary Brown said that many of the homes have required extensive repairs to their pipes because of damage incurred during the winter, delaying the process further.

Since 2014, the city has been aggressively shutting off water to nonpaying customers, despite the increased risk of illness. Duggan has said that the moratorium on shutoffs won’t continue after the coronavirus pandemic is over.