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Mainers will be able to keep their lights and internet on as utility, broadband and phone companies continue suspending shutoffs for nonpayment as the coronavirus outbreak stretches into its third month in the state.
Some 750 broadband and telephone companies renewed their March 14 pledge to not disconnect service and waive late fees for those unable to pay bills because of the coronavirus. Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, US Cellular, Spectrum, Comcast and GWI are among the companies operating in Maine that took a federal pledge and renewed it last Thursday until June 30.
State electric, water and gas utilities and telephone providers of last resort remain under a March 16 order by the Maine Public Utilities Commission to not disconnect customers until further notice. Large Maine utilities said it is too early to tell how dips in usage and nonpayment due to the virus will affect their bottom lines.
The commission is studying the effect of the pandemic on utilities and their customers. It is requiring monthly updates from utilities, some of which said they have lost income as customers deferred paying bills and as usage rates changed when employees moved from offices to home.
The extensions were made to assure that Mainers could continue to use the internet to look for jobs and keep their electricity and water flowing to stay healthy during the virus spread. More than 126,000 Mainers filed unemployment claims since the virus hit the state in mid-March.
Some of the companies are offering perks through June 30 including unlimited cell phone data plans, free programs for schools and new plans for low-income households.
Companies said it’s too early to determine the effect of delayed payments and special programs on revenues and earnings. Versant Power, formerly known as Emera Maine, said in a filing with the Maine Public Utilities Commission that it will take some time to fully comprehend the breadth of the pandemic’s effect. It asked the commission to be flexible in ruling on when the utilities can resume collecting for overdue bills.
Versant experienced a 10 percent decrease in electricity use by commercial customers in April 2020 compared to April 2019, said company spokesperson Judy Long. Total use by residential customers was about the same between those two periods.
Central Maine Power also experienced a drop of 11 percent in commercial sector use, but an increase of 7.5 percent in residential use during the first week of May compared to the same week in 2019, the company said in a commission filing on Friday.
CMP also cited increased operations and maintenance costs from complying with state-mandated social distancing requirements, such as renting vehicles so its two-person line crews could travel in separate trucks. It also had to pay for personal protective equipment and disinfectants.
CMP spokesperson Catharine Hartnett said the company has data on only one month of uncollected bills, so it would be challenging to specify how much of that is related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Maine Water, which serves 80,000 residents in 21 Maine towns from Biddeford to Millinocket, said it is also seeing impacts from businesses that either closed or are operating on a limited basis and canceled festivals and fairs.
“The true impact of the pandemic won’t be known until the fall,” said Rick Knowlton, president of Maine Water.
He noted that Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco has said it will not open this season. In Hartland, Tasman Leather has announced plans to close its last remaining tannery in the United States.
Maine Water’s water sales were 5 million gallons below last year at the end of April, mostly because of lost commercial sales, Knowlton said. Residential sales are about the same as last year, but he expects that to change with the warmer weather.
Knowlton said water utilities bill most residential customers quarterly, not monthly, so it is too early to tell how many customers will have difficulty paying their bill. Maine Water also is sending monthly reports to the utilities commission on the pandemic’s impact on the company and customers.
“We expect the commission to review the data and determine what, if any, assistance may be appropriate,” he said.