BETHEL, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative advisory committee has voted to reconnect running water to homes that lost service to enable residents to wash their hands during the ongoing outbreak of the COVID-19 virus.

Many homes in rural communities were disconnected because customers had not paid their water bills, KYUK-AM reported Thursday.

The collaborative manages water and sewer systems for 26 Alaskan communities including Chevak, Goodnews Bay, Holy Cross, Kotlik, Upper and Lower Kalskag, Pitka’s Point, Quinhagak, Russian Mission, Scammon Bay, Sleetmute, and Toksook Bay.

The homes will have their water service restored immediately, said Francine Moreno, the utility’s senior program manager.

“Handwashing is the number one prevention for spreading any illness. And right now, with the heightened concern of the coronavirus, we want to make sure as many homes have access to clean water despite their ability to pay,” Moreno said.

Some homes disconnected from the water system have broken pipes that utility workers will try to repair. The collaborative will also thaw and reconnect frozen pipes.

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The restored water service will last at least through the end of May and perhaps longer, depending on the length of the coronavirus outbreak, Moreno said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Homeowners using Alaska collaborative’s system will still be billed for the water they use, Moreno said.

“But then we’re also looking into can we do a reduced rate, or is there a way we can provide free service for a short amount of time,’” Moreno said.

The utility will track the expenses and determine if the state can provide reimbursement.