Is Los Angeles’ Blockage of Critical Resources Justifiable?

“cutting water and electricity to law-breakers could set a dangerous precedent, one analogous to authoritarian governments that leverage resources as an enforcement technique in times of war.”

By Justin Leopold, Gretta Elizondo

In response to a party on August 3, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti authorized the Department of Water and Power to cut utilities to houses violating COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. This decision is similar to a previous ordinance cutting utilities to cannabis businesses that did not possess permits. LA’s policy highlights long-debated ethical and legal standards weighing access to critical resources against the security of the state.  

COVID-19 continues to affect all aspects of daily life, with local and national leaders struggling to employ consistent and sustainable measures, such as the enforcement of masks in public and travel limitations. Travelers across the U.S. are required to self-quarantine under threats of fines, or even jail, if they have tested positive for COVID-19. Most local governments have taken standard routes to enforce guidelines, like Houston’s $250 fine for not wearing a face covering and New York City’s fines for out-of-state visitors disobeying the mandatory quarantine ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.  

Los Angeles’ measure to shut off private homes’ access to water and electricity is unique because it removes access to two of four Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-designated lifeline sectors of American Critical Infrastructure. Garcetti’s ordinance challenges the energy sector, deemed uniquely critical under presidential directive, and the Water and Wastewater Systems Sector, “a prerequisite for protecting public health and all human activity,” according to DHS. 

In Los Angeles’ current spike, the 18-49 age demographic accounts for sixty percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases, and while their own risk of death is low, they are very capable of spreading the virus, especially while asymptomatic. In order to decrease case numbers and stress on the healthcare system, the need for citizens to act responsibly is paramount. Unfortunately, some refuse to take the crisis seriously, whether due to low risk perception or general ignorance. 

While the August house party violated city laws and federal guidelines, cutting water and electricity to law-breakers could set a dangerous precedent, one analogous to authoritarian governments that leverage resources as an enforcement technique in times of war. For example, Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, suffered water shortages in 2017 when Ukraine dammed the North Crimean Canal in response to ongoing Russian intervention. More recently, Turkish military forces in Syria cut off the drinking water in July to the city of Hasakah.

Applying the policy to private homes directly impacts people’s quality of life, or even their right to life under long-standing international and U.S. law allowing people to “enjoy and utilize freely their wealth and natural resources.” The California Water Code declares that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible drinking water,” but stipulates the government is not obligated to provide the water or access to the water..

There is U.S. and international precedent surrounding the government’s right to temporarily restrict civil liberties when an individual’s exercise of their rights infringes on others’ rights. Regarding water and electricity, each U.S. state permits service disconnection by utility companies for infractions like stolen or fraudulent use of services. Essentially, when one’s critical resource usage infringes on others’ rights, the government can intervene. The lack of social distancing at parties constitutes a direct threat to the public due to likelihood of transmitting the virus. Therefore, shutting off utilities to hosts’ homes is a legal effort to restore the public’s secure access to a right to life.

Still, there is an ethical implication of cutting water and power access. In Los Angeles, August is the hottest month of the year and high temperatures can lead to hospitalizations and death, a risk exacerbated by lack of electricity access. Many are also currently working from home, and cutting power may impact economic livelihoods.

Deterrents and consequences are essential to discourage illegal behavior, but is cutting off access to lifeline sectors the best enforcement? Garcetti is not breaking any of the city’s own laws, but the larger question is whether this tactic is necessary or proportional to the crime. One could argue such legal latitude exists in international and U.S. law to leverage control over natural resources to pressure citizen responses. However, Los Angeles should ensure the contextual implications of such measures.. 

Los Angeles’ policy certainly highlights the seriousness of the pandemic and our obligation to be responsible –  wear a mask and socially distance – to enable our governments to respond effectively to this threat. Otherwise, governments may feel compelled to respond with extreme measures in what they believe is in the best interest of public health, even if the long-term implications are precarious.

Justin H. Leopold (@jleopoldcohen) and Gretta Elizondo are Environmental Security Analysts with the Center for Development and Strategy (@ThinkCDS) a non-partisan 501(c)(3) think tank devoted to the research and discussion of the nexus between global development, sustainability, and security in an era of unprecedented change.

The views expressed in this article are that of the authors alone and do not represent the United States government or any other government.

[social_share show_share_icon="yes"]