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Provincetown restaurants shuttered ahead of Carnival Week as sewer problem drags on

Mayflower restaurant Provincetown
Jennette Barnes
The Mayflower restaurant in Provincetown sits empty on what would normally be a busy day in August. Restaurant kitchens were shut down due to a sewer problem.

Provincetown businesses are making the best of an ongoing sewer problem that has forced the shutdown of restaurant kitchens and public restrooms in the downtown area.

It was a drizzly day Thursday, and restaurants normally would’ve been packed at lunchtime.

But the town declared a sewer emergency Thursday morning because of backups in the system.

Inside The Mayflower at midday, it was dark and oddly quiet as co-owner Michael Janoplis looked out at tourists walking by.

“It's very weird, standing in an empty restaurant, with a bunch of people out at 1:15 in the afternoon on ... what would be a busy August day,” he said. “So it's very surreal.”

Jennette Barnes
Mark Mitchell, owner of Perfect Picnic P-Town, said he couldn’t make sandwiches, but he was glad to offer drinks and pre-made food for hungry visitors.

The Portuguese Bakery was open in the morning, selling items baked before the closure was announced around 8 a.m.

Chuck Stanko, who owns the bakery with his husband, said they sold out of malassadas, the popular Portuguese fried dough, by 10:30 a.m.

“A lot of unhappy people,” he said.

The pastry case was mostly empty by lunchtime, and Stanko closed the bakery not long after.

“It’s not a huge deal,” he said. “What can we do? I wish it didn't happen, but there's not much we can do.”

The problems began Tuesday with an electrical outage in the vacuum system that serves the downtown sewer.

Town Manager Alex Morse said it appears the rain and water volume in the system damaged the electrical service.

Jennette Barnes
Workers brought 18 portable toilets to the parking area next to Town Hall in Provincetown because public restrooms were closed.

A vacuum sewer system uses negative air pressure to move sewage to a treatment plant. Without power, sewage can back up throughout the system.

Morse said power was restored within two hours, but the backups are taking time to clear.

The sewer emergency affects the main business district, including much of Commercial Street, part of Bradford Street, and surrounding side streets. Properties on private septic systems are not affected.

Provincetown also has a second, gravity-fed sewer system that serves properties farther from downtown. That system is not involved in the shutdown.

Tourists in town for the day yesterday were just learning of the problem as they started to look for places to eat lunch.

Jennette Barnes
By early Thursday afternoon, the Portuguese Bakery in Provincetown was nearly sold out of pastries baked before the town declared a sewer emergency in the morning.

Yvonne Bennett, vacationing in South Yarmouth, saw the lighted highway signs warning visitors as she drove into Provincetown, but decided to keep going.

She was standing on Commercial Street, looking for an open restaurant.

“I was like, ‘Sewer problem? What's that?’ We just kept on going,” she said, laughing.

Mark Mitchell, owner of Perfect Picnic P-Town, said he couldn’t make sandwiches, but he was glad to be open and offer other foods for hungry visitors.

“We're fortunate that we can be open, because we do have already-prepackaged food that we can sell,” he said. “So [it’s] good for the people in town that they can get some food somewhere.”

In addition to the kitchen closures, the town asked residents in the affected area to reduce their water use for things like dishwashing, laundry and showers, and to only flush toilets “when absolutely necessary.”

Thursday night, Morse said much of the vacuum sewer system is clear and reconnected, but the vacuum won’t work until the entire system is reconnected.

He provided an update on Facebook Friday morning: “Crews worked overnight and the team spent considerable time getting the vacuum line on Bradford Street up and running. However, more work is to be done and the sewer emergency for properties on the vacuum sewer system is still in place at this time.”

Business owners said they’re glad the town is taking care of the problem before Carnival Week, one of Provincetown’s busiest weeks of the year, starts on Saturday.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.