Several months into the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants in Lake Jackson, Texas, have a new health challenge to deal with: a boil-water advisory that started last week and could last for several days.
Late on Friday night, September 25, Brazoria County officials issued a Do Not Use water advisory that covered nine Gulf Coast Texas cities, including Lake Jackson, Freeport, Angleton, and Rosenberg. The advisory came after the death of a 6-year-old boy, attributed to a rare infection of the organism Naegleria fowleri. N. fowleri, often referred to as the “brain-eating amoeba,” is a naturally occurring organism found in fresh, warm water. It typically enters the human body through the nose, where it then travels to the brain. Infections are rare — there were only 34 reported cases in the United States from 2008 to 2018 — but often deadly.
By Saturday morning, officials had narrowed down the problem to the city of Lake Jackson’s water supply. (Officials believe the boy may have been infected from a water hose at his home, or at a local park’s splash pad.) The Do Not Use advisory was downgraded to a boil advisory for Lake Jackson only. Residents have been lining up for free cases of bottled water at the local college. On Monday, three days after the crisis began, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration.
For restaurants in the city, the water crisis is yet another challenge on top of the COVID-19 pandemic. Audra Robinson owns three restaurants in Brazoria County — Asiel’s, in the city of Clute; Poly Pop, in Lake Jackson; and Dirty South, in Angleton. On Friday night, all three restaurants were under the Do Not Use advisory. Before the advisory was downgraded, Robinson made the decision to keep the popular Asiel’s closed for Saturday breakfast and brunch.
“It was devastating,” she says. “We make as much money for Saturday breakfast as we do all day Monday. Plus, people are still afraid, so it was a slow weekend.”
As of now, only Poly Pop, Robinson’s tiki bar in Downtown Lake Jackson, remains under the boil advisory. It reopened on Sunday. And Robinson is somewhat lucky — even though Poly Pop and Asiel’s are in different municipalities — and thus use different water sources — the restaurants are only about half a mile from each other. So Robinson’s staff have been toting gallons of fresh water to Poly Pop for use every day, as well as things like pre-brewed ice tea and other staples.
Still, as a cocktail bar, Poly Pop has unique needs. Staff there cannot use the soda machines right now, so Robinson is buying bottled sodas from her distributor. She’s also buying crushed ice for the cocktails from the local Sonic. All those extra costs are adding up, she says, and some of her neighboring restaurants aren’t able to handle the extra precautions.
“Chili’s is still closed,” she says. “The bigger you are, the less agile.”
For now, the boil advisory is still in effect. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, city officials are actively working on a plan to flush and disinfect the water system, and the advisory won’t be lifted until the water consistently tests negative for the amoeba. It’s unclear how long that could take, but Robinson says she’s heard that it could be as long as 60 days. And she’s annoyed at the government’s response. Pallets of water aren’t enough, she says. But by now, in the eighth month of the pandemic, her staff is used to rolling with the punches.
“My staff are always on social media, checking the news and the TCEQ accounts,” she says. “We’re generally more informed than the city. This is just like the virus — it’s such a fast-moving situation, with a lot of confusion and misinformation.
“It’s been the same process as the virus — freak out, shut down, reopen slowly.”