Coronavirus prompts PECO and other utility providers to suspend shut-offs

Water runs from a tap.  (WHYY)

Water runs from a tap. (WHYY)

A number of utility providers servicing Philadelphia are suspending shutoffs in the face of the growing coronavirus outbreak.

The Philadelphia Water Department, Philadelphia Gas Works and PECO have announced moratoriums on service disconnections. The moratoriums, effective Friday, vary in length.

PGW and PECO will both suspend shut-offs until at least May 1, 2020. Both utilities will waive new late payment charges during that period as well.

“PGW wants to support any of its customers that may be facing additional difficulties because of the COVID-19 pandemic and connect customers with the payment arrangements, programs, grants and other resources available to stay warm without worry,” says PGW CEO Craig White.

The Philadelphia Water Department has suspended shut-offs for the next 60 days.

Comcast, Verizon and dozens of other internet and phone providers also announced Friday that they signed a FCC pledge to keep “Americans connected” by allowing free use of company wifi hotspots, suspending disconnections and waiving late fees for households and small businesses unable to pay bills over the next 60 days.

The local moratoriums on shut-offs come one day after Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym introduced a resolution calling for a coronavirus-related suspension of evictions, foreclosures, and utility cutoffs.

Similar calls have gone out in other American cities, and Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders echoed such pleas in a national address. The growing pandemic has closed schools and workplaces, causing a ripple of economic impacts.

Gym praised the swift action of the utility companies.

“We made this urgent call because all forms of utility access are essential to daily life, and will be particularly important in the face of this public health emergency,” said Gym. “Things like internet and telephone access are essential when people are relying on information to keep themselves healthy and to be able to check in on loved ones.”

The Philadelphia Municipal Courts, the First Judicial District, and the Sheriffs Office said Thursday that officials are monitoring the situation and remain in discussions with city leaders. There were no updates as of Friday afternoon about suspending evictions and foreclosures, although Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said he is in “active conversations” with the courts. Gym said she too is talking to criminal justice officials.

“I had an excellent conversation with the sheriff and we are having preliminary conversations with the courts,” said Gym. “These institutions are all very receptive to the call for a moratorium.”

Some low-income advocates say that companies should go further, and reconnect customers who have already been cut off.

“I’ve seen no announcement from any utility of the intention to restore service,” said Robert Ballenger, who heads Community Legal Services’ Energy Unit. “Although PECO has addressed late fees, I’m not sure others have. Customers who may not be able to make payment, or may face delay in accessing necessary funds with which to make payment, should not face increased unaffordability.”

PECO instructed customers who have a disconnect notice or late fees to call 1-800-494-4000.

WHYY is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly

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