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story.lead_photo.caption Linemen for a utility contractor work Tuesday in Sherwood chang- ing a utility pole on East Kiehl Avenue near Arkansas 107. Utility companies across Arkansas have pledged not to disconnect cus- tomers during the coronavirus pandemic. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal) ( Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Staton Breidenthal)

Electric and water utilities serving hundreds of thousands of Arkansans have pledged to not disconnect customers who are unable to pay their bills for the foreseeable future during the coronavirus pandemic.

Utilities nationwide have promised to keep the lights on and water flowing, even if customers don't pay, as the United States braces for an escalating number of confirmed covid-19 patients.

Entergy -- the largest electricity provider in Arkansas, with approximately 700,000 customers -- announced Saturday that it will not cut power to customers for nonpayment of bills. Other utilities in Arkansas, including Central Arkansas Water, the North Little Rock Electric Department and natural-gas provider CenterPoint Energy, have followed suit.

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In nearby states such as Mississippi, Kansas and Louisiana, utility regulators have issued orders mandating that providers within their jurisdiction suspend customer disconnections for the time being.

The Arkansas Public Service Commission, which sets rates for public utilities providing electricity, water and other services, has not issued an order of this kind because utilities in Arkansas have taken the initiative to suspend disconnections on their own, according to Donna Gray, the commission's executive director.

She said utility companies in the state have acted responsibly in keeping the commission informed of actions they are taking in response to the coronavirus. By the time government regulators in other states had issued orders, "the majority of our utilities had already suspended disconnects," Gray said Tuesday.

Depending on the severity of the outbreak in Arkansas, it may be difficult for individuals to meet utility bills, either because their workplace is closed or because they must remain in self-quarantine to avoid sickening others.

Employees may not be able to report to work in the near term, especially in industries hit hard by the disease like restaurants and tourism, as governments and businesses implement social-distancing measures designed to slow the spread of the virus.

The largest water utility in Arkansas said it is working to restore service to all residential customers and will keep the water running even for customers who ordinarily would have been cut off.

Central Arkansas Water, which serves approximately 450,000 customers in Arkansas, worked over the weekend to restore service to people who previously had their water cut off, the utility said in a statement. Customers were not charged turn-on fees, according to the utility.

Central Arkansas Water will keep water service running for all residential customers "to keep our customers safe" amid concerns over the covid-19 pandemic, the utility said, and referred to the importance of frequent hand-washing to prevent the spread of the disease. Water usage charges will continue to accrue during this period, and past-due amounts will remain due, the utility said.

According to Central Arkansas Water spokesman Douglas Shackelford, on Saturday the utility restored water to 440 residential customers out of the 650 eligible to have their water restored.

"The homes not turned on were left door hangers with instructions on how to turn on their water," Shackelford wrote in an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "The reason for that is that it's our policy not to turn on water to homes that look vacant or where no one is home, just in case there is a faucet on or a leak in the home that could create a potential flooding situation."

Central Arkansas Water was fielding calls Monday from customers asking to have their water restored, and the utility has prioritized those work orders to get their water turned on as soon as possible, Shackelford said. The water restoration is for residential customers only.

Customers whose water has not been restored are encouraged to call the utility's customer service department. Although the utility's customer service lobby remains open, Central Arkansas Water is asking customers to pay electronically or by mail if possible.

The utility told residents last week that covid-19 cannot be contracted through drinking water because of the water treatment process.

Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, which provides natural gas service to about 400,000 Arkansans, said Monday that it, too, will suspend customer disconnections.

"CenterPoint Energy will support customers who may need payment assistance, arrangements or extensions during the Coronavirus situation," the company said in a statement. Spokesman Ross Corson said in an email that the suspension remains in place until further notice.

A group of 17 electric cooperatives in Arkansas have vowed to maintain power to customers and have implemented a pandemic plan, but individuals with concerns about bill payment should contact their local cooperative, according to the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.

Spokesman Rob Roedel said the state cooperative's members have the autonomy to make their own decisions during a situation like the covid-19 outbreak. Many of these local cooperatives are also limiting office traffic.

The 17 electric cooperatives serve approximately 1.2 million people across Arkansas, Roedel said.

The municipal electric utility of North Little Rock suspended customer disconnections as of Monday and will evaluate the situation on a day-to-day basis going forward, according to Jill Ponder, director of business operations for the North Little Rock Electric Department.

The last shutoffs took place Friday, she said. Because the situation is so new, Ponder said, "we're just going to keep looking at it on a daily basis, and if we need to make that decision for the long term, we will."

Their department lobby remains open at this time, but like Central Arkansas Water, Ponder encouraged customers to use online or telephone payment options if they can.

Utilities in Northwest Arkansas are also suspending disconnections.

Electric provider Oklahoma Gas and Electric, which serves Fort Smith in addition to much of Oklahoma, announced in a tweet Saturday that the company will suspend disconnections for 30 days.

Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken said Tuesday that the city has suspended water disconnections and may also suspend late fees, an issue the city is examining.

The city does not have a specific timeline for long how the suspension might last. But Geffken said he wants residents to "be comforted by the fact that we will have their best interests in mind, so I would say at least through April 30, if not longer."

Fayetteville will not disconnect utility customers at this time and will not charge late fees, according to the city's website.

In a statement on Tuesday, Rogers Water Utilities said the city's residents have been reconnected to water services and will remain connected even if they do not pay.

Heath Ward, executive director of Springdale Water Utilities, said that although "we're not advertising it," the utility's intent is not to shut off water for individuals who can't pay.

"There is a public health problem right now," Ward said. "They will be expected to pay their bill in full at some point, though."

Metro on 03/18/2020

Print Headline: Power, water in state to keep flowing


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