CLEVELAND — As the total number of coronavirus cases continues to climb, Cleveland's water department is attempting to restore water to customers who have been shut off.
The move comes as people are desperately trying to avoid the virus without the one thing they need most: water to wash their hands.
Yet, precisely how many people without water remains unclear, despite repeated efforts for data from the Cleveland Division of Water. An open records request filed with the city weeks ago remains unanswered.
So far, it reports 532 customers have had water restored.
But an exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation, "Drowning in Dysfunction," found the water department sent more than 44,000 shutoff notices to customers in 2015 alone — although many of those may have ultimately had water restored.
The Cleveland Division of Water serves 1.3 million people across 80 communities in Cleveland and surrounding counties through more than 400,000 metered accounts.
Meanwhile, health officials have consistently advised that washing hands frequently with soap and warm water remains the primary way to cut down on the spread of COVID-19.
Cuyahoga County is leading the State in the number of COVID-19 cases, with 330 as of Friday with 69 hospitalizations. Cleveland's Department of Health confirms there are 61 cases within city limits. These numbers far exceed any other Ohio cities.
The role water shutoff policies play in spreading Coronavirus is now being stressed by a Washington, D.C. advocacy group calling for a moratorium nationwide on water shutoffs.
Many cities are doing exactly that and just this week, Ohio lawmakers passed legislation that would temporarily ban water shutoffs during the COVID-19 crisis.
"It should not have taken the Coronavirus epidemic," according to Food & Water Watch, that is currently tracking water shutoffs across the country.
In 2018, it released a nationwide survey of water department shutoffs and found the Cleveland Division of Water shut off 5,953 water customer accounts in 2016 alone-- affecting 13,394 individuals.
Food & Water Watch estimates at least 15 million Americans lost water service in 2016.
At the same time, the Cleveland Division of Water has consistently argued that water shut offs help keep water rates from rising even more by preventing other customers from having to subsidize overdue bills.
The growing concern over water shut offs follows a recently filed lawsuit by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that alleges the Cleveland Division of Water violated the civil rights of water customers by "denying them a basic human right" of access to water.