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How Flint's Restaurants Are Coping With the Water Crisis

Concerns over water safety are taking a toll on the city's small businesses.

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Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

For more than a year now Flint residents have been dealing with a water crisis in their community — one that was only acknowledged a few months ago by the state of Michigan. Heightened lead levels from corroded pipes have been poisoning the residents of Flint and the concerns over water safety have also spread to local restaurants and bars.

The trouble started in the summer of 2014, when officials in Flint including a state-appointed city manager Darnell Earley chose to stop purchasing water from the city of Detroit as a money saving measure. Instead, Flint began to pump water from the Flint River, according to Michigan Radio. From the beginning residents complained that the water was cloudy and gave off a strange odor.

Then, four months after changing switching over to the Flint River, the city detected E. coli in the water. Residents were encouraged to boil their water. The city added chlorine to the water to kill the bacteria, but residents began to complain that they could smell the chemical coming from their tap water. People's skin began breaking out in rashes and some saw their hair fall out. The chlorine even forced a General Motors engine plant to switch to an outside water source because it was damaging the car parts. As it turned out, the city had added far too much chlorine to the system. Despite ongoing complaints, Flint's leadership and the EPA insisted that the water was safe to drink.

Civil engineering professor Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech was brought in by residents to independently test the drinking water. What he found were heightened lead levels — well beyond the federal safety limits. Lead can cause severe cognitive deficits in children. In front of Flint City Hall in September 2015, Edwards told reporters that the city had failed to treat the water properly and as a result the city's water system was corroding and leaching lead into the drinking water.

"It used to be auto city; now it's poison city."

Fast forward to January, many residents in the city are just now receiving state and federal assistance including lead filters, bottled water, and lead level testing. To make matters worse, businesses in the city are also struggling the added costs of safe water and at the same time trying to convince patrons that it's safe to eat out.

"People don't want to eat," Flint "Original" Coney Island owner Atanas Zelevarovski tells The Detroit News. "The first question is: Do you got city water? Yes. Then you got filters? Yes. It doesn't do any good." Zelevarovski says he's installed a water filter in his restaurant kitchen and attached one to the soda and coffee machine, but the drop in business is making him consider closing his doors after 20 years. "I tell you what, it's going to be something like a ghost town," he says. "Who wants to drink poison? You want to live in Chernobyl? No. It used to be auto city; now it's poison city."

County health official Mark Valacak says that because restaurants regularly use their water, pipes are as badly affected by corrosion as homes, however businesses are still encouraged to install filters and get their water tested. As ABC reports, these commercial-grade filters can cost around $1,800. Torch Bar and Grill owner Ron Sims tells ABC that even with the filtration system in place, he's still offering bottled water.

Tenacity Brewing has also turned to social media to convince customers that it's safe to drink the beer. "The quality of our main ingredient is very important. We have filtered our water since the day we started brewing," Tenacity says in a statement posted to Facebook on Wednesday. "Our ongoing tests show that we are absolutely lead free. However, we recognize that our customers may have concerns so we want to reiterate that we filter, test, and taste our water every day!"

First and foremost, the #FlintWaterCrisis has been terrible forour community and our hearts go out to those affected....

Posted by Tenacity Brewing on Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Few water issues have affected such a large population of residents and even then, they're usually the result of a natural disaster. Nearly 2 million Bostonians went without water briefly in 2010, after a water main shut down service in the city. In 2014, West Virginia lawmakers asked residents to consider tipping restaurants workers a little extra after a chemical spill tainted local water supplies and forces food businesses in the area to go without work or pay for several days. Unfortunately, the damage done to the city of Flint won't be resolved in a few days. The city's pipes are considered so severely corroded that it may take years for the issues to be fully resolved and residents, especially children, will have to deal health issues associated with lead poisoning for life.