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For more news about the COVID-19 coronavirus, access the News Tribune Health section.

Utility companies are taking what their leaders call "unprecedented" measures to help customers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Missouri American Water, the major drinking water supplier for Jefferson City, has stopped shutting off water service customers who haven't paid their bill. The company has more than 11,000 customers in the Capital City.

"Normally, if they don't pay, we make efforts to reach out and eventually shut off, but we've ceased all that," Missouri American spokesman Brian Russell said. "We're doing this because the No. 1 recommendation from health officials is to wash your hands — so we need to have our customers be able to have the ability to do that."

Russell said the utility started this plan over a week ago, but it's "not like flipping a switch and it's done. It's going to take time to turn on all our customers across the state."

"I'm sure at corporate they've run numbers on what this costs the company, but we didn't concern ourselves with that at this time," Russell said. "Water providers across the country are all doing similar measures to put health and safety before everything else."

Two of the four Cole County Public Water Supply Districts — No. 2 with 5,100 customers and No. 3 with 755 customers — have also postponed shutting off service to customers who haven't paid.

At Cole County Public Water Supply District No. 1, District Manager Ruth Winters said the board has not taken any such action as they currently don't have any customers turned off for non-payment. With a few more weeks left for its 6,600 customers to make payments, any potential shutoffs wouldn't occur until early April.

And at Cole County Public Water Supply District No. 4, Manager Will Humphrey said they have made no formal changes to shutoff procedures. But if any of their 1,300 customers have issues, they can work on making payment arrangements.

"Even on a regular basis, we don't do a lot of disconnections, but that could change with the COVID-19 situation," Humphrey said.

Meanwhile, the everyday business of keeping water systems operating means maintenance crews still have to get out to make repairs.

"The Missouri American crews that are doing main repairs are small," Russell said. "We've told them if they have any symptoms to stay home. Some field crews who interact with customers, we've given them wide latitude, and if they don't feel comfortable going in or notice signs of someone who could be infected, then they reschedule their service for a later date. Customers will have service issues that we need to address, but we have to be wise about how we approach those."

Officials at Missouri American Water and the county water districts said water testing by the state is continuing and no issues have been found with any of their systems. They also noted their water treatment process, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, has barriers to provide protection from COVID-19.

"DNR has told us that COVID-19 hasn't been traced to drinking water," Humphrey said. "We use a chlorine disinfection method at the water district, and we're confident that takes care of anything that could potentially be in the water."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has said the virus has not been detected in drinking water.

Although the three main electric providers for Central Missouri don't foresee COVID-19 affecting their ability to provide power to their customers, they also have taken steps to help customers who have payment problems related to the public health emergency.

Marty Lyons, Ameren Missouri chairman and president, said in a prepared statement the company has suspended all disconnections for non-payment and will forgive any late payment fees for residential and business customers.

This past week, the company announced it had started the Ameren Missouri Coronavirus Income Relief Program. Ameren Missouri customers with an active account can apply for $250 toward payment on an account. Applications must be submitted through United Way's website at 211helps.org/AmerenRelief.

Roger Kloeppel, Three Rivers Electric Cooperative chief executive officer, said they too would work with members having difficulty during this time.

"We encourage them to call in and work with our member service team and work on billing arrangements to avoid disconnects and late fees where it's necessary," Kloeppel said. "We can make payment arrangements to settle the balance at a later date. We've got 23,000 active members in all or parts of seven counties, and short of a weather-related issue, we don't believe this will impact our service to the members."

COMO Electric Cooperative will not be doing disconnections through April 30. Patrick Wood, communication coordinator, said this includes all traditional accounts but not prepay accounts.

"For the prepay customers, we're lowering the required dollar amount to reconnect — going from $40 to $10 — and that lasts through April 30," Wood said.

COMO also provides high-speed internet service, and Wood said they won't terminate that for residential and small-business customers because they know there's an uptick for that service because of COVID-19.

"We've got a lot more people working from home and in some cases long-distance teaching," Wood said. "We increased internet speeds up to the next service tier through April 30. We're confident our 30,000 electric service accounts and 18,000 fiber subscribers in Cole, Cooper, Moniteau and Morgan counties will still be able to get their service as needed."

For more news about the COVID-19 coronavirus, access the News Tribune Health section.
 
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