‘It’s a matter of time before we start to see doors close’: Restaurant owners reach out to city council about Jackson’s water woes.

Published: Aug. 3, 2022 at 8:27 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jeff Good didn’t know about Jackson’s latest boil water notice issued last week until his customers started asking him about it.

Good, co-owner of three North Jackson restaurants, is one of several restaurant owners who spoke at a city council meeting Wednesday where they voiced their frustrations about Jackson’s ongoing water issues.

For his part, Good said the city’s lack of transparency is troubling, especially when the city did not inform residents that a boil water notice had been issued for about a day after it was handed down by the state.

“There was nothing on any of the city’s websites, and there was not for another 30 hours, I believe,” he said. “And right now, if you go to the website and the Facebook page... it’s three days ago that there was a post about the boil water notice.”

“The speed at which these things are occurring and the fact that none of us really understand how bad things are, that is a great concern to all of us as citizens and as businesspeople.”

Late Friday afternoon, the Mississippi State Department of Health issued a boil water notice for all surface water connections due to high turbidity found in samples taken at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.

Turbidity is the cloudiness of the water. The cloudier the water, the more likely it contains disease-causing pathogens that are not killed during the treatment process.

The city issued its own boil water notice at 4:53 p.m. Saturday.

Council members shared Good’s concerns, saying they too were left in the dark.

“We, unfortunately, found out through social media, Ward 2 Councilwoman Angelique Lee said. “I had several business owners reach out, and we started doing our own investigation.”

“This is why transparency is so important in this line of work because we’re the first line to the constituents.”

The council called a meeting of its Ad-Hoc Disaster Preparation Response Committee, in response to the city’s latest water crisis.

City Attorney Catoria Martin said there are many times the administration is not in agreement with the state’s decision to issue a boil water notice, and will talk with MSDH about lifting the notice.

“There are many times that we are, from a legal perspective, going back and forth with the Department of Health... We have our experts, they have their experts, and so there are many times when we’re going back and forth in a 24-hour period where we might get them to change their minds. We might not get them to change their mind,” she explained.

Even so, Martin said would be willing to put together an email list to let restaurant owners know when notices are issued.

Council members said they appreciated the city attorney’s thoughts, but said more needs to be done to keep the general public, as well as all businesses, informed.

“When people don’t have the opportunity and time to prepare, all the way from our schools, on the way to our restaurant and business community, then we’re doing them a disservice,” Ward 6 Councilman Aaron Banks said.

Banks said as the city begins budget talks, it needs to consider setting aside funding for an emergency response coordinator position.

“I think that we need to strongly look at making sure that if there’s some type of emergency response coordinator or team to help make sure that the communication is done and to help make sure that we are as close as we can be to being prepared,” he said.

Four restaurant owners, as well as the executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, spoke at Wednesday’s meeting.

The council and restaurant owners touched economic impact the city’s repeated water crises have on potential and existing businesses, and pointed out that the continued water problems could force current restaurants to close or leave.

“We have businesses that are trying to stay afloat and not leave Jackson, and we have new businesses that are trying to come into Jackson that are investing millions of dollars,” Lee said. “We definitely need transparency, so that we can be transparent with our constituents.”

Jackson has had numerous water struggles in the last two years, including the winter water crisis in February 2021, which left some customers without water for weeks. After that, an electrical fire broke out at the Curtis plant, again cutting water production.

And in June of this year, equipment failures at the plant yet again led to a drop in production, prompting the city to issue a water conservation notice and another boil water notice.

Since June 16, at least four boil water notices have been issued for the 43,000 connections served by the city’s surface water treatment facilities.

For many restaurants, these water failures translate into more expenses and less business.

Good says his restaurants spend between $200 and $500 a day when the city is under boil water notices to ship in bottled water, canned drinks, and ice from distributors.

Meanwhile, he said fewer customers come in because they’re worried that the water isn’t safe.

Steven O’Neill, general manager of Manship Wood Fired Kitchen and Aplos Jackson, said his establishments are able to cope thanks to purchasing a tilt skillet about 10 years ago.

“We’re still buying bottled product [and] we’re doing other things,” he said. “But we have this nice piece of equipment that allows us to boil 30 gallons that we can distribute in-house to help make tea, make coffee, and do things like that.”

Monetary costs aside, staffers also suffer after boil water notices go out. “We’re a large restaurant. We got three levels up there,” Iron Horse Grill Executive Chef Pierre Pryer said. “When that water shortage comes in, you’re hauling water upstairs, you’re hauling ice upstairs... It’s extra workflow for my staff, but we get it done.”

The challenges come even as restaurants still deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, employee shortages, inflation, and supply chain concerns.

“The National Restaurant Association indicated probably a month ago that profit margins nationwide have decreased by almost 75 percent,” said Pat Fontaine, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association.

“As margins decrease, many restaurants do not have the resources to withstand this. And so, as you know, it’s a matter of time before we start to see doors close, and we don’t want to see that.”

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