As Michigan preps for coronavirus, groups demand end to Detroit water shutoffs

The Spirit of Detroit outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, Detroit | Susan J. Demas

Citing heightened concerns over public health risks, a coalition of Michigan-based social justice organizations released a letter Friday calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to force an end to water shutoffs in Detroit.

The groups, led by the People’s Water Board Coalition, say continuing to shut off water for Detroit-area residents who haven’t paid their bills poses an immediate health risk to Michiganders without clean water. They also argue that this leaves them particularly vulnerable to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Water shutoffs in Southeast Michigan have affected more than 141,000 residential accounts since 2014.

“Michigan residents have particular reason to fear the spread of coronavirus because the ongoing deprivation of tens of thousands of people from basic access to water and sanitation puts everyone at risk,” the statement reads in part. “… We must stop the water shutoffs that are occurring in our communities to prevent the further spread of potentially fatal infectious diseases such as COVID-19.”

Groups call on Whitmer to end Detroit water shutoffs

The letter’s 42 signees include representatives and leaders of more than two dozen social justice, environmental and religious organizations in Michigan. The name of a former licensed water plant treatment operator in Detroit, Russ Bellant, is also listed as a signee.

In a Monday email, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the governor’s office is currently reviewing the letter. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) spokesman Bob Wheaton declined to comment and referred to Whitmer’s office for the administration’s pending response.

The coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has yet to pop up in Michigan. Still, state executives are diligently preparing in case it does. On Friday, Whitmer activated the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) at the Michigan State Police headquarters to better monitor the situation and quickly coordinate state action if a coronavirus case does arise.

The virus has, so far, infected at least 89,000 people across the globe and killed more than 3,000. There have been 87 confirmed cases and six deaths in the United States since the coronavirus entered the country in late January.

Whitmer’s administration and state health department officials have denied that there is a correlation between water shutoffs and increased risk for waterborne disease. Requests to categorize the situation as an imminent danger in accordance with Michigan’s public health code have, so far, been denied.

Whitmer activates State Emergency Operations Center for coronavirus

But the coalition’s letter sent to Whitmer on Friday argues that the city and state have neglected to even study the problem, let alone put any public health measures in place to prevent further issues.

“In light of the impending health and social crisis of coronavirus and the current health crisis of shigellosis and other water-related illnesses caused by thousands of households being deprived of water, we the undersigned demand that Whitmer work with the DHHS to call for an immediate moratorium on all water shutoffs in the State of Michigan,” the statement reads.

Shigellosis is a bacterial infection affecting the digestive system that can be transmitted through contaminated water and food. Michigan saw a threefold increase in the disease in 2016, largely due to an uptick in cases in Flint and surrounding areas plagued by the water crisis.

The letter to Whitmer warns that “residents deprived of water in their homes have been sharing or borrowing water at an alarming rate — 80% in one study — creating a transmission path for coronavirus, as well as hepatitis A, shigellosis, campylobacter and giardia.”

Cyndi Roper, the Michigan senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the situation has clear public health implications that could easily be helped by action from top state officials.

“We feel like there was cause for a moratorium on shutoffs and for reconnection of water service even before the coronavirus, but now it’s an absolute imperative that people have access to running water,” Roper said.

Legal activists urge state to suspend Detroit water shutoffs

This is not the first time Whitmer has been asked to end the water shutoffs. In November, a coalition of civil rights lawyers and organizations sent a letter to Whitmer privately urging for an end to the service interruptions; after that did not happen, the same group publicly made the same ask of her a few months later.

Lou Novak, co-chair of the Green Party of Michigan and one of the letter’s signees, said it is a “dereliction of … duties to serve the people” that full water and sanitation services have not been restored to Detroit residents in light of the coronavirus’ “impending arrival.”

The Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann is an activist, retired pastor and direct action point person for the Michigan Poor People’s campaign, which also signed onto the letter. He told the Advance he is “astonished” that the Whitmer administration declined to declare a public health emergency on the basis of the water shutoffs while still drawing upon the state’s emergency resources to respond to the coronavirus.

“These things seem urgently and decisively connected, to us,” Wylie-Kellermann said. 

He added that the issue disproportionately affects poor people who cannot afford their water bills, especially as Detroit has some of the highest water rates in the nation.

“The governor is asking people to wash their hands, which is pretty difficult to do when you don’t have running water in your home,” Wylie-Kellermann said.

Two Democratic presidential candidates, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, also have condemned the water shutoffs. Sanders called them a “moral outrage” in a Feb. 19 tweet, and Bloomberg Senior Adviser Antha Williams said the situation was “not acceptable” during an environmental policy roundtable with reporters in Lansing.