UPDATE: On Sat., March 14, Entergy announced that it will suspend all shutoffs for 30 days.

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States and Louisiana grows, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board announced on Thursday that it would suspend service shutoffs as long as an emergency declaration by Mayor LaToya Cantrell remains in place. On top of that, the Sewerage and Water Board will be working to reconnect customers who currently have their water turned off, giving priority to seniors and chronic health conditions.

The announcements came hours after a City Council committee meeting, during which council members called on the city’s utility providers to suspend service shutoffs for the time being.

“At the core of our mission is to keep New Orleans safe and healthy,” Ghassan Korban, Executive Director of the Sewerage and Water Board, said in a press release. “Washing your hands and keeping clean is a first line of defense against coronavirus, and so we want to ensure all our residents have access to clean water.” (The Sewerage and Water Board previously suspended service disconnections in 2017, following customer complaints of bizarrely inflated bills. The utility restarted shutoffs in 2018, even as problems with bills persisted.)

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office released a statement announcing the move by the Sewerage and Water Board. The statement said the city is “working with power, water and telecommunications utility providers to ensure efficient and uninterrupted service to residents, especially during the response to COVID-1.” 

At a utility committee meeting Thursday morning, several City Council members had called on Entergy New Orleans and the Sewerage and Water Board to suspend all service shutoffs. The committee also called on Cox Communications to explain how it would expand internet access during the ongoing pandemic. 

“We are all aware of what’s happening with the coronavirus,” Councilman Jay Banks said. “People are going to be struggling throughout this because they will not be paid… It will be far easier for major corporations to take a slight hit than it will be for someone who’s working in a restaurant and they ain’t making no tips.”

Entergy officials at Thursday’s meeting wouldn’t immediately commit to suspending shutoffs. Entergy New Orleans Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Brian Guillot told the council “that is something we’re considering.”

“I would ask for that answer to come today,” councilwoman and utility chair Helena Moreno said. “We really would expect the answer to be yes.”

The company did not initially agree to suspend all disconnections, however. In a letter sent to council members later on Thursday, Entergy New Orleans CEO David Ellis agreed to temporarily halt power shutoffs for nonpayment for the next 30 days only when “nonpayment is the result of the COVID-19 virus.”

“We will continue to monitor the situation and extend if necessary,” the letter said.

On Saturday, however, Entergy Corp. announced that all disconnections would be suspended for 30 days.

In an email to The Lens, Cox spokeswoman Sharon Truxillo said the company’s capacity can handle the city and school district’s needs, should schools close and students need to take classes from home.

“Cox also has a low-income broadband program and is exploring additional ways to expand this initiative if the virus forces school closings. We are also in active discussions about how we can help school systems with a large population of students who need to work from home. We stand ready to support and serve our communities in times of need.”

With travel restrictions, canceled public events, economic uncertainty and public anxiety growing, Banks said that the city’s tourism-heavy economy, and the large population of hospitality workers, are sure to take a hit. 

“The reality of New Orleans is that we have a tremendous amount of our population that are involved in the tourism industry and who work on hourly wages and survive on tips,” Banks said. “We don’t know if the federal government is going to step in and help subsidize all of those people who are going to be hurt.”

He said he didn’t know if the council had the authority to mandate Entergy to temporarily stop shutting people’s power off. But in the meantime, he made a plea to several Entergy officials present at the meeting. His office also reached out to the Sewerage and Water Board to make the same request. 

“I don’t know if it’s in our authority or power to mandate it be done,” Banks said. “If not, I ask you to be a partner with us in this crisis.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Moreno said the committee would start working on a resolution for the council to consider next week, “saying that there will not be any shutoffs of power or water.”

“This becomes all the more important as more people start working from home, and more kids are receiving their education over the internet,” said Councilman Jason Williams. 

Already, two New Orleans charter schools have temporarily shut down. If more schools shut down, that means more kids will need to receive their education over the internet. 

“We have a number of people who are below the poverty line and a number of people who stay just above it,” Williams said. “Their kids being able to stay connected with their schools is paramount. So please take these arguments back to your team and do what you can.”The chief operating officer for NOLA Public Schools, Tiffany Delcour, said at a Wednesday meeting the district has asked school to think about what students do and do not have internet access as it decides how to respond to the rapidly shifting pandemic. The district has asked the city for assistance.

This story was updated to include details from the letter Entergy New Orleans CEO David Ellis sent to the City Council. The Lens obtained the letter after this article was first published.

This story was updated to include an announcement from Entergy Corp. that all disconnections will be temporarily suspended. The announcement was made two days after this story was first published.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...