PROVINCETOWN — With its rolling dunes, sparkling salt marshes, and world-apart feel, Provincetown is a magical summer getaway nearly surrounded by water.
But suddenly, at the height of the season, this tourist getaway has a water problem of an entirely different kind — waste water, to be exact.
A failure in a sewer system threw the town at the tip of Cape Cod into turmoil Thursday, forcing the closure of restaurants and public restrooms at the height of summer. As workers raced to fix the problem before the beginning of Carnival Week, a summer festival that draws as many as 150,000, people were told to reduce water usage sharply, from dishwashing and laundry to showering,
“Only flush when absolutely necessary,” an advisory stated.
Restaurants were told to shut immediately to “prevent a further public health emergency caused by sewer overflows.”
“We need to drastically reduce flow to allow the critical repair work in order to get the town back to full capacity,” it said.
Town officials estimated it would take two days to complete the necessary repairs and return that section of the town’s sewer system to normal. The system serves a long stretch of the harborside of Provincetown concentrated along Commercial Street, extending deeply into the west end of town. More than a dozen portable toilets were brought in and placed near Town Hall.
The problems began earlier in the week, when a station that runs the sewer system for downtown experienced electrical issues due to thunderstorms. The heavy rains “hampered our ability to make the necessary repairs,” Town Manager Alex Morse posted on Facebook Wednesday.
Emily Boynton, whose coffee shop on Commercial Street was closed during the emergency, said tourists come to town “en masse these days.”
“I’ve owned a home here for 35 years, I’ve never seen it this busy,” she said. “We are taxing this old town and testing its limits.”
On Thursday, Morse said the sewer problem should be fixed before Sunday, in time for the start of Carnival Week this weekend. The annual festivities, canceled since 2019 because of the pandemic, draw huge crowds.
“Our expectation is that the system will be back to normal before the start of Carnival Week,” Morse wrote. “We encourage businesses to begin conversations with their insurance companies as we work to limit the duration of the disruption. The Town will do everything it can to support businesses impacted by this disruption.”
Stephan Hengst, executive director of the Provincetown Business Guild, said Tuesday’s rainstorm “was quite dramatic, to say the least.”
”We are very fortunate that the storm that came through the other night raised awareness of the issue right now and gave the town plenty of time to prepare,” he said. “While it’s still unfortunate that businesses have to close and lose money at all, it’s better to do so now than next week.”
On the afternoon ferry to Provincetown from Boston, passengers commiserated about the situation and updated those who had not heard the news. Some called hotels and restaurants to check the status of reservations, while others consulted a map to determine what areas were affected.
Shawn Hoyt, who was heading for a four-day honeymoon with his wife, learned about the shutdown as he arrived at the ferry. Although their hotel was not in the affected area, they’d already had a restaurant reservation canceled.
“It sounds kind of gross, so we’re nervous,” he said. “We’re not sure what to expect, but we’re just going to roll with it.”
Thursday afternoon, most restaurants on Commercial Street were closed, with handwritten notes about the sewer shutdown taped to doors and windows.
Stores that served nonperishables, such as Cabot’s Candy Store, were crowded with customers, who said the closures had left them “hungry and thirsty.”
Cashiers at CVS said the store had been busier than usual, with customers stocking up on bottled water and packaged food. By the late afternoon, some shelves typically packed with chips, popcorn, and other items were almost empty.
John Escribano, 58, a tourist from Washington, D.C., was among those who headed to CVS for water and coffee, “just to make sure we have the essentials,” he said.
Mark Mitchell, owner of Perfect Picnic Ptown, said he closed his kitchen and could only sell inventory such as prepackaged foods, cheese and crackers, and beer and wine. He said he was cautiously optimistic the shutdown will be “one little bump” in the road.
”I feel like we’ve been through kind of a lot over the last couple of years. But everybody seems to be banding together, and it’s a good community,” Mitchell said.
Mike Potenza, marketing manager for the Lobster Pot, a well-known seafood spot on Commercial Street, said they’re “extremely worried” about how the shutdown will affect business if the situation isn’t fixed promptly.
”Every minute that it’s down is a real problem for us,” he said. “Between the COVID and the monkeypox and whatever else they’ve got coming down the pipe — and now this — it’s a setback for us.”
Losing clientele during the peak of the summer is “real bad news for the whole town,” he added.
”We sent everyone home,” he said. “Guys came in and took the deliveries this morning and then they sent them home. Our crew is all home waiting for word.”
Gary Belis, 70, a longtime summer resident whose house is in the affected area, said he had not showered and has used the portable toilets.
“We’ve had a series of blows here these past few summers, from the coronavirus in general to our specific July 4 outbreak last year,” Belis added. “You’re hearing the usual jokes about, ‘When are the locusts coming?’ But we’ll deal.”
Mark Renfrow and Jim Eckerle, 62, part-time residents, said they were confused about what caused the sewer problem, why it worsened through the week, and what the town is doing to fix it.
“It went from a little tiny bit of noise to boom, all of a sudden, and I don’t understand,” Eckerle said. “It’s really quite unclear as to what is really going on.”
In response to complaints about the town’s communication, Morse on Thursday evening said that officials had “kept the public informed every step of the way” and had held a public meeting “where our engineers and consultants clearly delved into the details of the problem.”
“We understand the frustration,” he said “but a one-, two-day disruption is necessary to avoid a much longer one, which would have been the case if we did nothing.”
Niki Helton, 46, of Tampa, had scheduled a day trip to Provincetown as part of her vacation to Boston, and didn’t hear about the sewer problem until she was walking into town from the ferry.
“The worst part about it was that some of the restaurants weren’t open, so we were scurrying around looking for lunch,” she said.
Many of the shops on Commercial Street had closed, she said.
As a result, “You don’t really have any place to go. You’re kind of stranded,” she said, sitting on a bench outside City Hall. “We’re just sitting here, waiting for the ferry to come back.”
A local business owner who wanted to remain anonymous said the town was “dead.”
“People are coming into town and leaving,” he said. “If you can’t eat and drink, you’re gone.”
Steve Annear, Shannon Larson, and Amanda Kaufman of the Globe staff and correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Hanna Krueger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger. Camille Caldera was a Globe intern in 2022.Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.