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The question of extended moratoriums on utility shutoffs is only becoming more complicated

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Just because you no longer have to doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. But what if you can't?

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, 35 states implemented moratoriums on electricity, gas and water shutoffs in order to protect the health and safety of their citizens as the uncertainty of the public health crisis loomed. It was a strong, near-national display of prioritizing people over revenue.

However, many of the moratoriums have since expired. According to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, a policy organization for the state directors of Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, as of Nov. 20, 2020, only seven states have maintained those moratoriums. By the time Jan. 1, 2021, only 3 states—Wyoming, New York and California—and the District of Columbia, will have these moratoriums in place.

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Despite the country now hurdling toward a second wave of coronavirus cases, few states are discussing a revival of these moratoriums. In Virginia, lawmakers have taken a more nuanced approach and, instead of issuing a statewide moratorium, appropriated $100 million to protect Virginians facing financial hardship caused by the pandemic from electricity shut-offs.

It appears unlikely that the country will see the type of moratorium response from as many states as we head into this second surge, leaving many Americans vulnerable. This was signaled late last month, when top Senate Democrats, instead of appealing to state governors, sent a letter directly to the country’s 21 largest utility providers, to halt all shutoffs until the public health crisis is over. Take this as another sign that not even elected officials are confident in their own ability to get federal mandates or financial aid bills passed.

Without movement from state legislatures or the federal government, it appears that protecting Americans from loss of electricity will come down to the will of the utilities themselves, some publicly-owned, others publicly-traded and still some privately run. There is no clear road ahead. According to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, across the country, households are looking to have roughly $24 billion in back-payments for utility bills by the close of 2020. That means utilities, although they in many cases were mandated to, have supplied $24 billion of essentially free utility services.

It’s undoubtedly been a significant burden to bear, without most state legislatures moving on new moratoriums, or Congress coming to a compromise to provide financial assistance, the ability of millions of Americans to still access crucial utility services through the rest of the pandemic will depend on the altruism of for-profit companies. It’s an unprecedented time and it will call for an unprecedented solution.

But, even if most utilities decide to implement moratoriums through the end of the pandemic, a more than $24 billion bill still sits unpaid on the table. Where that money comes from is an entirely different and potential more contentious battle.

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