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As concerns around the novel coronavirus stall the economy, utilities in Alaska are vowing to protect customers who can’t pay their bills because of the pandemic.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz announced on Tuesday that Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility and Municipal Light & Power will halt utility shutoffs as long as the city-issued declaration of disaster remains in effect, currently through April 14.
“We’re in the midst of a pandemic, which is causing dramatic repercussions to our economy. I want to make sure that no one is worried their water or power will be shut off because it’s suddenly tough to pay bills,” Berkowitz said.
Customers should continue to pay bills on time, and unpaid bills will still grow during the suspension, the utilities said.
In recent days, dramatic steps by federal, state and local leaders to control the outbreak has led to widespread cancellations and closures, limiting business activity in Alaska and raising concerns of layoffs.
Cruise ship and air travel has plummeted, hitting the state’s tourism sector, and oil prices have crashed, threatening the oil industry.
Berkowitz on Monday issued an emergency order prohibiting dine-in service for food or drink at restaurants, bars and breweries through March 31. The order also closes entertainment facilities such as theaters and gyms, and prohibits gatherings of 50 or more people.
Berkowitz said the city will work with the state to accelerate payment of unemployment benefits. The city wants to minimize evictions of renters, he said, and will work with the state on that effort. “We’d like to put a halt to those for the time being,” he said.
The federal government is considering a stimulus package that should go directly to small businesses and people facing immediate impacts, he said. Much of what the city does will depend on the outcome of that effort, he said.
“We are examining every single avenue we can possibly have to make sure people have access to relief funds as quickly as possible,” Berkowitz said.
“It is unfair that the immediate economic cost of this situation, that the closures that I ordered, is going to be felt disproportionately by people who are in many ways least able to absorb that,” he said.
Bill Falsey, Anchorage city manager, told reporters on Monday that keeping water running is essential for good hygiene, such as proper hand-washing, and containing the virus.
“Everyone should continue to pay their water bills to the extent they can, but we will not be shutting anyone’s water off in the near future,” he said.
Chugach Electric, a utility cooperative serving part of Anchorage, said it’s also adjusting its policies to ease hardships that could affect its customers.
“In recognition of the significant impact the coronavirus is having on our community, Chugach is temporarily suspending service disconnects for non-payment and will not be assessing late payment fees,” Chugach Electric spokeswoman Julie Hasquet said in a statement.
Telecommunications companies GCI and Alaska Communications said last week that they will not charge late fees or cancel service for the next two months for customers whose lives are affected by the coronavirus.
“If your ability to pay is impacted by this pandemic, please contact us so we can work with you individually to waive late fees and avoid suspended service,” GCI said in a statement sent by spokesman Josh Edge. “We are committed to helping our customers who are impacted by this evolving situation.”
Alaska Communications said it will “waive long-distance overage fees as appropriate, related to the coronavirus pandemic,” in addition to not suspending service.
Enstar Natural Gas “will continue to work with customers to set up payment arrangements and will continue to evaluate broader measures as the situation develops,” said the utility’s spokeswoman, Lindsay Hobson.
The Alaska Housing Finance Corp., a public housing agency, owns and operates 1,600 low-income housing units in Alaska, and provides about 4,000 families with rental support through vouchers.
“To the extent Alaskans are having hardship with rent, we absolutely want them to notify us and we will work with them through this economic hardship caused by the virus,” said Stacy Barnes, spokeswoman for AHFC.
Solid Waste Services does not suspend trash or recycling service regardless of payment status, Suzanna Caldwell, the utility’s spokeswoman, said in a statement.
“We are still assessing how we will handle relief of any customers struggling with payments as a result of the COVID-19 response and will provide updates when we have more information," she said, referring to the disease caused by the virus.
Laurel Andrews, a spokeswoman with Alaska Waste, which provides services across much of the state, said in a statement that Alaska Waste will also protect customers. One option will be working with customers on payment plans.
“In response to the national emergency, we will not discontinue service for our residential customers due to non-payment,” the statement said.