PROVINCETOWN — Every day is showtime for restaurants. The curtain goes up when the doors open. But just minutes after Café Heaven owner Quinn Taylor had seated the first 25 customers of the day last Thursday, Aug. 11, he got a call from the town health department: all restaurants serviced by the town’s vacuum sewer system had to close immediately.
He took down his “Open” flag and piled up dirty dishes. Then he sent all his employees home for what turned out to be two days.
Taylor was a television executive at NBC and ABC before buying Café Heaven, and he understands the show must go on, he said. But when the sewer system failed after a rainstorm — and after two years of Covid closures and restrictions — “it was tough,” Taylor said.
Taylor estimates the sewer malfunction cost him $45,000 to $50,000 in lost business, produce, baked goods, and other perishables.
James DeRosiers, co-owner of Spindler’s restaurant, Kohi Coffee Company, and the Waterford Inn, said two days in August equals about one-and-a-half months of winter revenue. For year-round businesses, profits from a nonstop summer fuel the winter months.
The Waterford had one cancellation — and the staff fielded lots of questions from nervous customers. But it stayed open. Guests were instructed not to take long showers, he said. The fallout at the inn was nothing compared to the “tens of thousands of dollars lost when a restaurant does not operate for two days,” DeRosiers said. “This is peak summer.”
Tin Pan Alley owner Paul Melanson told the Independent two days of August revenue covers the rent for the month.
“Most of my employees earn hourly wages, and we are still debating what to do about them,” Melanson said.
Several restaurateurs said their insurance does not cover losses from a town sewer malfunction.
On Tuesday, Aug. 16, the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce sent a statement to its members from state Rep. Sarah Peake and state Sen. Julian Cyr. The legislators stated they “will work to bring available state resources to assist those who have been severely impacted by the interruption.”
That includes “outreach to the Division of Insurance to see if they might be helpful in assisting business owners in filing their claims for loss of business.”
Cyr and Peake instructed business owners to ask insurers how to file a claim under the “business disruption clause.”
The select board was to meet on Aug. 17 at 5 p.m. (after this edition’s deadline) to discuss how the town can “prepare specific requests for state assistance,” Cyr and Peake’s letter stated.
“It’s a shame this happened. It’s very disheartening,” said Radu Luca, executive director of the Provincetown Chamber. “Some business owners were livid, not only because of the lost business but because of the thousands they paid to connect to the sewer system. Others were like ‘Oh well, my staff gets two days off in August. When does that ever happen?’ ”
Frank Bellistri, manager of Bayside Betsy’s, said, “The media went hog-wild on us” publicizing the problem. Once repairs to the vacuum sewer system led to a full reopening on Saturday, the headlines were much less eye-catching, if they appeared at all.
Everyone seems to agree that it could have been worse. Taylor said he wishes town leaders had been more decisive and shut the vacuum sewer system down on Tuesday night when the problem first occurred rather than waiting to see what would happen later. But at least they did fix it before it killed the whole weekend, an outcome that Taylor said “would have been hideous.”
On Saturday, the Provincetown Business Guild, Chamber of Commerce, and Tourism Dept. all put out the message on social media that repairs were complete, and the crowds responded. Stephan Hengst, the PBG’s executive director, said that by Saturday night town was “packed.”
The opening events of Carnival week on Sunday saw participation up at 2019 levels, Hengst said. That included 840 people attending the Carnival Cruise and nearly 1,000 revelers showing up for the Miss Swamp Thang Carnival Opening Party and the Monday pool party at the Brass Key Guesthouse.
The 3 p.m. Aug. 18 Carnival parade, themed “Monsters, Myths & Legends,” has 65 contingents including 30 large floats, Hengst said. That is not quite the numbers seen in 2019, when 78 marching contingents and over 40 large floats paraded. Staff shortages have made it harder for businesses to field floats. But he said help came from a PBG pilot program where a business could pay $4,250 for artists to build them a float. The Crown & Anchor, Baystate Cruises, and the businesses owned by the Linchris Hotel Corp. (Harbor Hotel, Surfside Hotel, the Brass Key, and Crown Pointe Inn) participated.
“I am a great believer in underpromising and overdelivering, and I thought [Town Manager] Alex Morse did a great job,” Hengst said.