Editor’s note: This article was updated on Saturday, Aug. 13.
PROVINCETOWN — The downtown vacuum sewer system was returned to stable operation overnight on Friday and the emergency order issued on Thursday has been lifted, according to an alert sent out by Health Agent Lezli Rowell at 6:22 a.m. Saturday.
“All users can begin to gradually return to normal water use,” the alert stated. “Bring on the Monsters, Myths, & Legends,” Rowell added, referring to the theme for this year’s Carnival Week, which begins Saturday.
Town officials had declared a public health emergency on Thursday in the wake of the failure of the vacuum system serving the entire downtown area. All restaurants, bars, and public restrooms in the affected area were ordered closed.
The affected area included Commercial Street between Snow and Point streets and Bradford Street between Conwell and Prince streets. Residents on the vacuum system were asked to reduce water usage by not washing dishes, doing laundry, or showering, and by keeping toilet flushes to a minimum.
Signs alerting the public of the closure were placed on Route 6 in Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham and at the Orleans rotary in hopes of keeping crowds at bay until the system was fixed. The strategy, combined with news reports, appeared to work, as the number of visitors to town on Friday was clearly much smaller than usual.
The select board and board of health declared the emergency in a meeting on Thursday morning. All food service in the downtown area was halted except for the sale of commercially pre-packaged ready-to-eat food.
“This is necessary to prevent a further public health emergency caused by sewer overflows, and we need to drastically reduce flow to allow the critical repair work in order to get the town back to full capacity,” the town’s official statement read.
Shutting down restaurants and bars during the busiest part of the tourist season was “draconian,” health board chair Stephen Katsurinis said, but keeping the system at the lowest level of operation would, he hoped, allow workers to repair the system more quickly.
The crisis started during a downpour on Tuesday when water flooded the system, causing electrical problems that prevented the vacuum from operating properly. A notice went out to residents and businesses imposing a temporary shutdown, and crews worked overnight on repairs. On Wednesday, officials thought the system was in working order. But as the crowds grew, the problem worsened, said the town’s engineers.
Health Agent Rowell said sanitary requirements for food preparation that are related to handwashing could not be met with the system down.
“Handwashing is the best defense against food-borne illness,” Rowell said. “This is a public health crunch and not a time to cut corners.”
Christopher Hartley, an alternate member of the board of health, asked whether bars might use plastic cups and sell beer in bottles. Rowell said customers would want to use the bathrooms, which would have to remain closed. Others agreed there would be no way to get around the bathroom problem.
Town Manager Alex Morse said the message had gone out via social media, email, and phone calls. Landlords were contacted as were those who hold food-service licenses in the affected area. Fliers were also being passed out on the street, Morse said.
Board members noted that declaring a state of emergency allows the town to tap into aid from the state. They urged businesses that had to close to pay their employees for the work hours lost. The town will look to the state for financial help to reimburse business owners for loss of revenue.
The town’s gravity sewer system, which is newer than the vacuum system, operated with no problems. Officials said the money to refurbish the vacuum system has already been appropriated.