BOSTON — Utility customers who cannot pay their bills during the coronavirus pandemic will keep their service under a new order issued by state regulators.

The state Department of Public Utilities issued a new order late Tuesday that bans electric, natural gas and water companies from disconnecting service during the state of emergency. The order includes commercial and industrial utility customers, as well as small business, which fall behind on their bills because of the economic fallout.

Utilities face fines of up to $1 million for violating the order, according to the state agency.

Public Utilities Chairman Matthew Nelson said the order "will ensure the continued availability of gas, electric, and water service to all ratepayers during the state of emergency" and also "protect residents and businesses from added economic pressure during these difficult and uncertain times."

Under the order, regular billing for electric, gas and water service will continue, but customers cannot be shut off for not paying their monthly bills.

Companies are also prohibited from sending letters or emails threatening to shut off gas, electric or water service to customers for failure to pay.

Utilities have been under increasing pressure to stop bill collections under an emergency declaration signed on March 10 by Gov. Charlie Baker that shut down public schools and many businesses for three weeks. Baker has imposed a number of other aggressive restrictions aimed at preventing spread of the virus as the number of cases in Massachusetts continues to rise.

The state Department of Public Utilities already prohibits utilities from disconnecting residential electric and natural gas service from Nov. 15 to March 15. But the agency sent letters to utility executives following Baker's order explaining that the moratorium should remain in place until the emergency declaration is lifted.

The directive pointed out the need to remind consumers of the "importance of making payments during the moratorium to avoid the accumulation of large arrearages."

To be sure, many utility companies had already vowed to give customers a break on their outstanding electric and natural gas bills in response to the pandemic.

The companies are also taking precautionary steps to limit exposure and reduce the impact of the virus on our customers and employees.

Some, like National Grid, have temporarily suspended non-essential work that requires access to homes or businesses. 

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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