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Whitmer orders that homes' water service be restored amid COVID-19 pandemic

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order Saturday night that requires public water suppliers to restore service to occupied homes where it's been disconnected as a way to combat the coronavirus.

The order comes as COVID-19 continues to spread across Michigan. As of Saturday, the state had 4,650 confirmed cases of the virus that health care officials fear could overwhelm hospitals.

The new order says it's "crucial that all Michiganders remain in their homes or residences to the greatest extent possible and wash their hands thoroughly and regularly."

"This is a critical step both for the health of families living without a reliable water source, and for slowing the spread of the Coronavirus,” Whitmer said in a statement. "We continue to work to provide all Michiganders – regardless of their geography or income level – the tools they need to keep themselves and their communities protected."

Demonstrators hold up a display reading "Water is a Human Right" outside Central United Methodist Church in Detroit on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. A coalition of groups protesting residential water shutoffs in Detroit came together for the 20-minute action.

Under the order, public water utilities must work to identify residences in their service areas that do not currently have water service and restore it to occupied homes where it's been disconnected, according to a press release from the governor's office.

These service restorations must happen "so long as the public water supply does not have reason to believe that reconnection would create a risk to public health," the order says.

To assist utilities in complying with the order, the state has set up a $2-million fund through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The "Water Restart Grant Program" will provide funding to communities to help reconnect homes to their water supplies, according to the governor's office.

The department will provide limited grants to communities with the grants going to to "high-risk areas," a press release said.

The order is effective for the duration of the state's COVID-19 emergency and does not absolve anyone from responsibility for past-due bills, according to the governor's office.

Under the order, public water suppliers that have used shutoffs as a consequence for nonpayment must file a report with the state on their efforts to restore service. The reports are due by April 12.

The Saturday order comes one day after a state-created environmental justice council urged Whitmer to take "urgent action" to aid Michigan residents without running water in protecting themselves against contracting or spreading the virus.

The Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice asked Whitmer to mandate that all public water systems in the state immediately begin supplying water to any and all households that have had service terminated for any reason. The group also requested that all shutoffs be discontinued during the crisis and that a discounted rate be extended to customers who had been cutoff as well as the establishment of public water stations. 

"With large numbers of residents being unable to follow basic public health recommendations, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to rapidly spread throughout Michigan," the letter, signed by 15 of the group's 21 members, reads.

In Detroit, Whitmer and Mayor Mike Duggan unveiled an interim policy this month to restore service to Detroit customers without water at a discounted rate. The city gained national attention in 2014 when about 33,000 homes lost water access over unpaid bills. The crackdown on widespread delinquencies happened during Detroit's financial crisis.

Mary Brady-Enerson, Michigan director of the environmental group Clean Water Action, thanked Whitmer for the order on Saturday. Brady-Enerson said the 'last step" to ensure residents have clean water during the pandemic is to establish water distribution stations in communities with high levels of shutoffs until service is restored.

"We applaud Gov. Whitmer for her incredible leadership in response to this public health crisis and hope she will take that one last critical step as quickly as possible," Brady-Enerson said.