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STATE AND LOCAL NEWS ROUNDUP | Georgia governor and Atlanta mayor talk settlement on governor’s lawsuit over city mask mandate … Ohio governor issues travel advisory for nine states … Pennsylvania governor criticizes mocking of his health director.
State bans on utility shutoffs are expiring, which means many struggling families that have racked up months of unpaid electric, water and gas bills are now facing disconnections. In North Carolina, 1.3 million household utility accounts are eligible for disconnection, with the shutoff moratorium and prohibitions on late fees ending on July 31. (The Washington Post estimated that this could affect as many as a million families.) More than three-quarters of the utilities are run by local governments or are quasi-governmental, which has meant residents’ inability to pay amid the coronavirus economic recession is hitting city pocketbooks, too. (Although one state accounting does note that 59% of the missed $258 million in payments for both residences and businesses is owed to major investor-owned utility companies like Duke Energy.) Still, the impact on municipal utilities is a key reason why Gov. Roy Cooper isn’t extending the shutoff ban. Elizabeth City, a town of about 18,000 people, got an exemption from the state to allow them to begin disconnections this month, with leaders saying they simply couldn’t support the quarter of account holders who were behind on payments. But advocates for families struggling with unprecedented unemployment levels say the end of moratoriums are going to be devastating. Pamela Atwood, director of housing policy at the North Carolina Housing Coalition, noted that because many people are at home more, energy and water bills are going to be higher. “And so, when you compound that with potential job losses or reduced work hours, it’s just putting people in this deeper and deeper hole to get out of,” she said. Other states are dealing with the same challenges, with some political leaders in Wisconsin this week calling for reinstatement of the disconnection ban with more than 69,000 people facing shutoffs this weekend. The state Public Service Commission on Thursday voted to extend it until September. “There is an undeniable nexus between the provision of utility service and public health and safety,” said Rebecca Cameron Valcq, chairperson of the commission. [News & Observer; Washington Post; Wisconsin State Journal; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]
GEORGIA MASKS | Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp are in talks to settle the lawsuit the state filed against the city leader over Atlanta’s mask mandate and other coronavirus restrictions. The discussions come as other cities in the state move forward with their own mandates, with leaders raising concerns about the continuing spread of Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus. On Wednesday, the Georgia Municipal Association filed a brief in the lawsuit, raising concerns that other cities’ requirements are also at stake, noting that about 100 municipalities mandate masks be worn in public buildings. “Our position is in support of home rule, local control and the rights of local governments to adopt policies for their own buildings and the right of local governments to adopt ordinances that supplement the governor’s orders,” said GMA Executive Director Larry Hanson. On July 15, Kemp signed an executive order intended to block cities from implementing mask requirements more stringent than the state’s recommendations. Even with the pending lawsuit, some localities this week moved forward with mask ordinances, such as the city of Clarkson on Tuesday. The nearby city of Sandy Springs didn’t signal support for Atlanta in its fight with Kemp, but approved a resolution calling for people to wear masks. Mayor Rusty Paul wrote the narrowly tailored resolution, which he said was personal, as three family members, including his 94-year-old mother, are currently battling the disease and he knows two brothers who both died after contracting it. “I don’t think anything has been more challenging, more stressful, more concerning than the challenge that we are dealing with, with the pandemic today,” Paul said. “There is a tremendous amount of angst and concern, particularly among the vulnerable population, of which I am one.” [Atlanta Journal Constitution; Reporter Newspapers]
TRAVEL ADVISORY | Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a travel advisory for nine states to try to mitigate the spread of coronavirus back to Ohio. The nine states, which include Florida, Texas, and Arizona, have positive Covid-19 testing rates of 15% or higher. "I know this will be hard and is a sacrifice, especially as summer vacations are in full force, but when we have a higher likelihood of being exposed, we should take precautions to limit the exposure of others," DeWine said. [The Hill]
DUNK TANK | A dunk tank at the Bloomsburg Fair in Pennsylvania has caused controversy because the fair organizers used a man in a dress to impersonate Pennsylvania's Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine, who is transgender. Gov. Tom Wolf called it “the latest in a relentless series of vile slurs directed at … Levine—a highly skilled and accomplished member of my administration.” [CBS Pittsburgh]
MAYOR TEAR GASSED | Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler joined a protest outside the city’s federal courthouse to listen to demonstrators on Wednesday night. Federal officers deployed tear gas into the crowd, also hitting Wheeler, who called the action an “egregious overreaction” and said that he “saw nothing which provoked this response.” [New York Times]
Editor's note: This story was changed after publication to clarify the numbers of households eligible for disconnection in North Carolina.
Laura Maggi is a managing editor of Route Fifty and Emma Coleman is the assistant editor.