On a Tuesday night in mid-March, the streets of downtown Rochester were empty as the remnants of a nor’easter swirled through. But the fourth floor of the county office building was packed. Residents milled outside the chamber doors for close to an hour, then lined up inside for two more to address their county reps. Most were there to complain about one thing: their utility company. Utilities are rarely popular, but Rochester Gas & Electric has drawn a special furor in the past two years. Speaker after speaker slammed RG&E over astronomical bills that in many cases seemed to come out of nowhere.
Across San Antonio, the virus was hunting. Food insecurity was high. Mass layoffs and terminations rolled on. And it was hot. Hundred-degree days scorched much of July. Yet the lights and air conditioners—for the first time in many, many summers—were staying on reliably for rich and poor alike across the city. Every side of town. Every block. For thousands of poor families across the city who routinely struggle to keep up with their utility payments, this was perhaps the one gift of a deadly pandemic: a pause on forced electricity disconnections for nonpayment.