At Alma del Mar in the Italian Market, business was down after the water scare. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

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Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

An employee at The Quick Fixx sent restaurateur Matt Levinson a link to an article about the chemical spill threatening Philly’s water supply just before the city issued its first emergency notification. He immediately pulled all the tap water from the coolers at his South Street West restaurant, brought up a case of bottled water, and prepared to power through the latest challenge.

“Without the pandemic it probably would’ve been a bigger shock,” Levinson told Billy Penn. “But now I’m so used to it, it’s like what new punch do we have to roll with?”

The city’s initial Sunday notification advised the avoidance of tap water after 2 p.m. that day for consumption, cooking, and even cleaning of dishes and utensils, leaving restaurant owners unsure of how to continue operating their businesses, or whether they even could. 

A few hours later, the recommendation was rescinded, with an the deadline pushed back until at least 11:59 p.m. on Monday (later changed to Tuesday, then Wednesday). Before the city finally gave the all-clear Tuesday night, confusion among restaurant owners had run deep.

“It’s a fair balancing act,” Levinson said about the staggered messaging. “You want to communicate and do what’s best for your constituents, but you also don’t want to start mass frenzies,” 

In the hours between the city’s messages, packaged water bottles, along with seltzer and bags of ice, did indeed quickly disappear from Philadelphia stores.

As vice chair of the South Street West Business Association, Levinson has dutifully been sharing all updates he’s been receiving, which he said included notifications from the Water Department, the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, and even the School District.

He would have liked to see a clear statement from the Health Department, or the formation of some kind of emergency advisory board to which business owners could turn for direction.

“I’m trusting the powers that be that, for now, we’re good,” Levinson said. “But if you guys are telling me I can’t cook and wash dishes and you’re the governing body, I need to know what I can do. I’m not going to shut down proactively while trying to provide jobs for 17 people here.”

Some Philly restaurants did opt to close Sunday evening. Many of those that didn’t felt the economic effects of the city’s early alert.

Communication lacked clear directions or resources, proprietors say

At Alma del Mar in the Italian Market, owner Alma Romero pointed out the store-bought gallon jugs set aside for cooking and cleaning — but noted she might not even need them. Her dining room would usually be packed on a Monday afternoon, she said, but there were only four people across two tables, water bottles noticeable on each. 

“I don’t even like using plastic,” said Romero with a defeated shrug. “But what can I do?”

Husband and co-owner Marcos Tlacopilco added that operating the restaurant costs an average of $700 daily, a figure he didn’t believe they’d be able to recuperate that day.

Beyond the emergency alerts, the couple said they hadn’t received any direct communication from the city. They’ve gotten regular updates from both the Italian and Mexican business associations, but useful information has been sparse, with most communication expressing uncertainty among the neighborhood’s restaurateurs.

“Everybody is scared,” Romero said.

At Philadelphia Brewing Co. in Kensington, co-owner Nancy Barton feels satisfied with the level of information she’s received, even if she’s not entirely sure how she received it.

“We got an automated call around 10 or 11 p.m. [on Sunday] saying if I wanted updates on the situation I could visit a website,” Barton said, adding that she wasn’t sure which city department the call was from, or why exactly she’d gotten it.

“We do use a lot of water so I figured we must be on their radar somehow,” she reasoned.

While appreciative of the city’s overall efforts, Barton also said the messaging wasn’t particularly helpful. “The information we got from the city was all stuff we’d already looked at,” she said, describing the links provided as a “rabbit hole” that offered little clear direction.

For the moment, Barton is cautiously hopeful. “We have a 5,500 gallon storage tank of clean fresh filtered water that was in the tank before this happened, so we’ve got a good back-up for now.” she explained. “If this goes on for a few days or weeks, it might be a different story.”

‘Used to turning on a dime,’ but this was a novel situation

At Bridget Foy’s on South Street, owner John Foy made the decision to stop serving tap water as soon as the first alert came through.

“We just sort of turned on a dime,” Foy said. “Hey, we’re used to it. We’ve dealt with pandemics and this and that and the other thing. So we’re used to turning on a dime when we have to do it.”

This situation is somewhat novel. “The restaurant’s been here for close to 43 years, and I do not recall a water emergency before,” Foy said. “Lots of other emergencies, but not a water emergency.”

Bridget Foy’s on South Street. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

At Mighty Bread on Passyunk Avenue, proprietor Chris DiPiazza made a similar decision when getting the initial Sunday alert: he immediately halted sales of coffee and espresso drinks.

“We have a huge filtration system, but they haven’t mentioned if that’s safe to use or not,” DiPiazza said on Monday. “It’s frustrating to not know if we would have been fine that whole time.”

The Health Department’s email message came “way late,” he said, and consisted of information that had already been reported in the media. Plus, he added, the email came with a “do not reply” label.

“So it’s not like communication is being encouraged,” DiPiazza said.

“It’s been a rough stretch for restaurants in general, so not having that communication is tough,” he said. “We need that information to make decisions, for our employees as well as our customers.”

At the Yellow Bicycle Canteen in Washington Square West, owner and chef Ian Natowsky has switched to using bottled water for everything from cooking and cleaning in his restaurant.

The situation and messaging reminded him of the changing guidelines restaurants dealt with during the pandemic.

“Everything seems to be on contingency plan since COVID hit, between regulations and restrictions and mandates,” Natowsky said. “Everyone’s trying to earn their dollar and still be respectful to their customers and employees and keeping them safe, but it’s sort of a Wild West at this point.”

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Ali MohsenFood & Drink Reporter

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.

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Cory Sharber

Cory Sharber is a general assignment reporter at WHYY. Prior to his stint in Philadelphia, he spent four years between WVXU in Cincinnati and WKMS in Murray, Kentucky. He’s picked up accolades at the...