RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order Tuesday prohibiting utilities in the state from disconnecting customers unable to pay their bills during the coronavirus pandemic.
The order applies to all electric, gas, water and wastewater services for the next 60 days, Cooper said.
Cooper’s order further directs utilities to give residential customers at least six months to pay their outstanding bills and prohibits the companies from collecting fees, penalties or interest for late payments.
Cooper said he also strongly encouraged telecommunications companies that provide phone, cable and internet services to follow the same rules.
The order also encourages banks not to charge customers for overdraft fees, late fees and other penalties. Cooper also strongly encouraged landlords to “follow the spirit” of Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s order last month and delay any evictions that are already entered in the court system.
“This action is particularly important since tomorrow is the first of the month, and I know that’s a date many families fear when they can’t make ends meet,” Cooper said in a press release. “These protections will help families stay in their homes and keep vital services like electricity, water, and communications going as we stay at home.”
Cooper was referring to his executive order on Friday that ordered all North Carolinians to stay at home for the next 30 days as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. As of Tuesday, North Carolina had 1,498 COVID-19 cases and eight deaths.
Tuesday’s order was the latest Cooper has issued to stop the spread of conoravirus. He previously ordered all schools statewide to close for two weeks before amending the order to have schools remain closed through May 15. He also has ordered all restaurants and bars in the state to close to dine-in customers during the pandemic, allowing them to stay open for take out and delivery service. Prior to the stay-at-home order he also ordered all hair salons, barbershops, nail salons, bowling alleys, movie theaters and tattoo parlors to close.
Those orders have come amid vast economic disruption in the state because of the pandemic. Cooper issued a statement Sunday saying the state had received 270,000 claims for unemployment insurance over the past two weeks, most related to COVID-19 as businesses either close or scale back their operations. The state reported about 22,000 unemployment claims on Saturday alone, The Associated Press reported. By comparison, the state received about 7,500 claims in the first two weeks of March.
On Tuesday The AP reported that North Carolina’s restaurant and hotel operators are seeking state financial aid and tax deadline relief, saying the closings and minimal travel from COVID-19 have thrown more than 370,000 of their employees out of work.
Cooper noted at a press conference of the state’s Coronavirus Task Force on Tuesday that a number of companies have already voluntarily announced policies to prevent shutoffs. Those he mentioned include Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, AT&T, and local electric co-ops. The city of Elizabeth City has announced it has suspended all disconnections through April 30.
Cooper’s order comes in the wake of a letter signed by 30 public interest organizations and sent to the governor, urging him to take action to halt utility shutoffs during the pandemic.
“We commend the governor for his action,” said Al Ripley of the N.C. Justice Center.
“This is a significant step in helping North Carolinians through this crisis and protecting the public health.”
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, also praised the move.
“By urging all cable and internet providers not to disconnect subscribers while COVID-19 infections continue to necessitate distance learning and telecommuting, Governor Cooper took the necessary steps to allow for people to work and learn from home, regardless of individual circumstances,” Jewell said.