The Word from Lansing: Water Shutoffs Are a Health Concern in COVID-19 Pandemic

A young girl washing her hands in a bathroom sink

Stay six feet apart. Wear a mask. Wash your hands often, for at least twenty seconds. Over the course of the pandemic, these health recommendations have been shared so often; Michiganders could probably repeat them in their sleep.

Each are certainly important steps in coming together as a community and protecting one another from the spread of COVID-19. How easily a person can incorporate these measures into their daily routines, however, can be more complicated. For those barely scraping enough together to purchase groceries for the month, access to clean water may seem like a luxury they cannot afford. Sadly, as a result, the “wash your hands” directive may not always be as simple as it seems for some low-income families.

Amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic, communities are recognizing that water access is a necessity, not a luxury. Water is an essential resource, a critical component in the world’s first line of defense against the spread of COVID-19: handwashing. Shutoffs, as a result, endanger the lives of struggling Michiganders and those they come into contact with at work, at the grocery store, and in other areas of their daily lives. As a state, it is critical to prioritize keeping the water on for all residents.

Thankfully, early in the pandemic, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 28 of 2020 to address water shutoffs across the state. The order:

  1. Placed a moratorium on water shutoffs due to nonpayment.
  2. Ordered water service to be restored to occupied residences.
  3. Required public water suppliers to provide reports on the status of water service in their area.

Later on, the governor issued Executive Order 144 of 2020 to ensure these provisions were continued through the summer. However, due to the Michigan Supreme Court striking down the governor’s use of the Emergency Management Act of 1976 and the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945 beyond the initial phase of the pandemic, neither are in effect today.

It is now properly the responsibility of the Michigan Legislatur to explicitly write temporary water shutoff protections into law as a critical issue of health and dignity, especially as the state continues to feel the effects of the virus. Senate Bill 241, sponsored by Senator Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), would do just that. In its advocacy work, Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC) has said that “low-income residents are often left behind when communities focus only on short-term consequences, politics, or finances when making decisions that affect water access” (MCC, Clean and Affordable Water for All). That unfortunate truth is why MCC has been calling for passage of Senate Bill 241.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we need to be looking out for one another and finding creative ways to support one another as a community, including through public policies. “We need a new sense of fraternity, for mutual help and esteem,” and we need it immediately (Pope Francis, Message for the 2020 World Day of the Poor). Inaction on Senate Bill 241 could lead to shutoffs that impact over 317,000 households across the state, all while COVID-19 continues to vigorously attack our communities.

It is worth noting that while the pandemic shines a light on the current difficulties facing low-income residents, the issue of water affordability is sadly not unique to this crisis. Too many Michiganders have struggled to access clean and affordable water, which provides nourishment and sustains life, and too many Michiganders have felt adverse health effects as a result of that lack of access.

In his 2015 document, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis wrote that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival.” Discussions must continue about how to assist low-income residents and address water affordability. In the meantime, passing Senate Bill 241 is the next right step.

As of Friday, December 18, 2020, Senate Bill 241 has passed the Michigan Senate by a 30-8 vote and passed the House by a 96-9 vote. The bill continues now to the governor.