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Dominion, Duke, Santee Cooper among SC utilities halting shutoffs for coronavirus outbreak

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Several public and private utilities in South Carolina announced this week they would suspend their shutoff policies so customers won't go without vital services during the public health response to the coronavirus. File/Staff 

Several utilities in South Carolina are giving customers a break if they fall behind on their monthly bills, ensuring any financial distress caused by the novel coronavirus won't limit people's access to gas, water and electricity.

But other utility providers say they've yet to decide if they will forgo shutting off people's services while public health officials try to contain COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Charleston Water System, Mount Pleasant Waterworks and the City of Columbia said they would not shut off service if customers fail to pay their bills, meaning they will have access to water during the outbreak.

The city of Camden, the epicenter of South Carolina's largest coronavirus outbreak, has also suspended shutoffs, its city manager said.

"If washing your hands is the most protective thing we can do, why would we take away the water," said Clay Duffie, general manager for Mount Pleasant Waterworks. "We always want to protect public health."

Some large investor-owned water companies in the state are also following suit. Blue Granite Water, which supplies homes and businesses in Greenville, Lexington, Richland and York counties, announced it, too, would cease its shutoff policy until at least March 30.

“As a public utility, Blue Granite understands our obligations to the communities we serve, including the personal safety of our neighbors through personal sanitation,” Denton said. “We know a safe and reliable source of potable water is vital for hand-washing, surface cleaning, and all other measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.”

The South Carolina utilities are not alone. Public and private utility systems, in cities like Atlanta, Seattle, DetroitSt. Louis and Charlotte, already announced that they would keep people's tap water and utility services on as the country ramps up the public response to coronavirus. 

Democratic members of the U.S. Senate also called on the country's largest internet service providers, like AT&T and Comcast, to end data caps for their customers. They argued that was vital as more schools, universities and businesses have turned to online classes and videoconferencing services to limit the spread of the disease.

The potential economic impact of the virus in South Carolina is not yet clear. Many large public gatherings and sporting events in the state were cancelled or postponed this week. But most businesses have continued to operate normally.

As a result, some utilities are still weighing whether to change their billing and shutoff practices.

Mike Saia, a spokesman for Charleston Water Service, said the public water system had yet to decide if it would end shutoffs for its roughly 120,000 retail customers. But that could change as more information becomes available. 

"Taking care of our customers and employees is our top priority," Saia said. 

Chris Kahler, general manager for the Summerville Commissioners of Public Works, said his water utility had not altered its shutoff policy either. But he suggested that could change if state and local leaders take more dramatic steps, like shutting down schools. 

Electric utilities have followed suit: Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Santee Cooper and the state's electric cooperatives say they will not shut off customers' power. Together, they account for virtually all of the state's electricity users.

Dominion Energy, which powers the Charleston and Columbia areas, said that electricity users who have already lost service can call the company to have it restored. The utility says it plans to waive fees for reconnection and late payments.

"We recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic could potentially create financial hardships for many of our customers and local communities, and we will continue to monitor impacts and make operational decisions accordingly," said Ryan Mosier, Duke's spokesman. 

Santee Cooper, which serves 183,000 customers largely in Georgetown and Horry counties, also said it would not cut anyone's power due to lack of payment through at least early April. Mollie Gore, Santee Cooper's spokeswoman, said the state-run utility would reevaluate that policy after that time.   

"There are many reasons people need electricity during a pandemic," Gore said.

Thad Moore and Adam Benson of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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