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Combatting COVID-19 through Law and Policy: Social Distancing Only Works if People Can Stay at Home

March 18, 2020


Every morning across the country, including those jurisdictions most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, people convene in courthouses to respond to orders of eviction and complaints for nonpayment of rent. As the pandemic causes more and more workers to lose hours, the numbers of people forced to file into courthouses will only increase, in direct conflict with the social distancing practices that public health experts have urged the public to employ in order to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infection.

Not only do packed courthouses compromise disease control efforts, but evicting people from their homes at a time when everyone needs a place to take shelter and distance themselves from others endangers the renters who are evicted and their entire community. Workers who are sick and one paycheck away from not being able to pay rent are more likely to go to work, potentially exposing others in their workplace and on public transportation. In response, just in the past week, several jurisdictions have taken innovative steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by instituting policies designed to ensure that people can stay in their homes.

A moratorium on evictions.

New York City, Seattle, Florida’s Miami-Dade County, New Jersey’s Essex County, and Los Angeles, among others have placed a moratorium on evictions for a period of time. Baltimore’s mayor has asked the City Sheriff’s office and District Court Administrative judge to halt evictions for as long as Baltimore public schools are closed. San Jose and San Francisco are in various stages of implementing a stay on evictions “if inability to pay rent is due to coronavirus or following government-recommended coronavirus precautions.”

While this protects low-wage workers from the ripple effects of COVID-19, it does not consider the issue of those who face eviction for other reasons and should still be sheltering at home during this time. On the state level, more than two dozen New York legislators wrote a letter to the Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals asking for an immediate moratorium on evictions in the state, noting that “permitting evictions to continue will unnecessarily and unreasonably increase health risks from COVID-19 for New Yorkers.” California is considering a similar moratorium on evictions and foreclosure proceedings. Of note, many courts across the country have temporarily closed their doors to the public and suspended proceedings altogether in order to enhance social distancing efforts.

Keeping the power on.

To ensure that people can be comfortable in their homes, other localities have issued a temporary suspension on power shutoffs. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District issued a statement that it would not turn off power for those who have not paid their bills during the outbreak, and customers who had their power disconnected will have their power restored. On March 13, Baltimore Gas and Electric announced that it would suspend service disconnections and waive late charges for bills at least until May 1, and Georgia Power is suspending power shutoffs for the next 30 days.

Access to clean water.

Water for drinking and washing hands and surfaces is critical to allowing people to stay in their homes. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), which supplies drinking water and wastewater treatment to most residents of a large portion of the D.C. suburbs in Maryland, announced that it will suspend all water service shutoffs for those facing financial difficulties. Likewise, the mayors of Baltimore City and Minneapolis announced via Twitter on March 13that it will not shut off water service for failure to pay bills at this time. Earlier in the week, on March 10, the City of Detroit announced plans to restore water service to thousands of customers who had failed to pay their water bills. The state of Michigan will pay the $25 reconnection fee for those who have already lost water service or are at risk of losing water service. After 30 days, Detroit residents can then keep the water on for $25 a month throughout the duration of the outbreak.

Of note, some water companies at the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., King County, Washington have yet to institute moratoria on water shutoffs. Some of the largest water systems in King County—Seattle, Bellevue, and Redmond—have all instituted shut-off moratoria, but other nearby water systems have only committed to “working with” customers on a case-by- case basis and have instituted payment plans. Meanwhile, several federal legislators have petitioned Congressional leadership to include funds in an upcoming stimulus package, which is being developed in response to COVID-19, to provide relief for those who are struggling with water shutoffs and bills and/or institute a nationwide moratorium on water shutoffs.    

Other temporary policy approaches to help people stay in their homes to slow the rate of infection and to minimize the social and economic fallout of the outbreak include urging banks to suspend mortgage payments and to direct financial assistance to renters and small businesses, including landlords. Several jurisdictions are implementing a combination of these measures. On March 14, the City of Santa Monica, California, issued a supplement to its emergency proclamation that places a temporary moratorium on evictions, water service shutoffs for residents and businesses for non-payment of water and sewer bills, and related late payment fees.

On March 16, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan strengthened social isolation measures statewide, which included barring all evictions and utility shutoffs, including electric, gas, water, sewer, phone, cable TV and Internet, for the duration of the state of emergency. Several other jurisdictions are likely to follow suit. These innovative measures will protect people who have been impacted by COVID-19 directly, those caught in its fallout, and the entire community. As Los Angeles Councilman Herb Wesson said, “We’re trying to take care of people who are sitting in their house right now and wondering what the hell they’re going to do.”

This post was developed by Kerri McGowan Lowrey, Deputy Director and Director of Grants & Research, Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region Office.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of (and should not be attributed to) RWJF.