FORT PIERCE, Fla. — The burden of COVID-19 threatens to spoil the holidays for some families with financial hardships, forcing them to choose between paying for electricity bills or presents.
In Fort Pierce, there are hundreds of addresses on the Fort Pierce Utility Authority's list of homes or businesses at risk of having their utilities shut off.
The FPUA is working with individuals to make sure disconnecting utilities is the last resort, after first contacting individuals, leaving door hangers and sending home a pink letter warning of their overdue amounts. They are also developing payment plans.
A representative with the FPUA said it was the last utility company to resume disconnections after taking a pause because of the coronavirus since March.
So far, 148 residences have had their utilities turned off in December in Fort Pierce. The FPUA said 75% of them have since been restored. The other 25% have also likely abandoned their homes, moved away or had other reasons not to pursue restoring their utilities.
Jose Carasquillo's home is among those on the potential disconnect list. He said his utilities were supposed to be turned off Monday.
"They gave us an extension until Friday," Carasquillo said Monday.
An unexpected health emergency elevated his family's hardships this year. He suffered a heart attack in March and was supposed to be in a hospital for just a couple of days to have double bypass surgery.
"Ended up there 29 days," Carasquillo said.
He couldn't work to make money, so his wife's income went to bills and essentials. Bills eventually took a backseat.
"The bills are still stacking up, but we're trying our hardest," Carasquillo said.
He was also afraid to return to work as he was considered high-risk for COVID-19.
The FPUA also received some private donations, including $5,000 to help seniors.
Fort Pierce resident and community activist Mario Wilcox said he also felt compelled to help, contacting county leaders, law enforcement, various nonprofits locally and nationally, and community groups to try to find funds to cover outstanding balances and protect people who may have to stay in a dark home.
"If I would have seen five on that list, I would have reacted the same as seeing over 1,000," Wilcox said.
He said he is also taking it upon himself to pay off accounts.
"On the list, there were some accounts being disconnected for as low as $92," Wilcox said. "That's something that I can pay."
The FPUA is welcoming customers to apply for assistance of up to $400 on its website.