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Hospitality, retail industries suffering during leak

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Hospitality and retail businesses in Charleston continued to suffer from Thursday's chemical leak, though some restaurants were beginning to reopen with conditional use permits from the Kanawha Charleston Health Department.

Some were allowed to re-open Sunday, providing they submitted an alternative water use plan that did not use tap water.

All restaurants receiving water from the West Virginia American Water plant in Charleston were forced to close under the "do not use" order issued Thursday night. The health department allowed some bars to reopen over the weekend to sell bottled beer.

Bluegrass Kitchen on Charleston's East End was one establishment allowed to reopen its doors on Sunday. Owner Keeley Steele said her restaurant tweaked its menu to avoid using large dishes. Disposable place settings were being used.

"We rewrote our menu down to sandwiches and stuff like that," she said. "Washing dishes is our main issue."

Bluegrass Kitchen also had hand-washing stations in its bathrooms and used clean water to wash cooking utensils.

Other restaurants remained closed though, and the loss of business was taking its toll.

On Charleston's West Side, Mi Cocina de Amor had also applied for a conditional use permit, but was waiting to see if the permit would be approved as of Sunday night.

Frank Gonzales, owner of the popular Mexican restaurant that opened in 2012, said if the permit is granted, his restaurant would be open today, a day it's usually closed.

Gonzales said Mi Cocina de Amor would follow the health department's guidelines and also have a limited menu, including tacos, burritos and grilled items.

"It'll be a good menu," he said.

On Friday, Gonzales expressed concern not only about his restaurant's income, but also about his 10 employees, who were off work without pay.

"Clearly the effect is tremendous," he said Friday evening, going on to say his employees "usually have their biggest day (Friday)."

Most of the food at Mi Cocina de Amor is made from scratch and can't be re-frozen, Gonzales said. The food that had been prepped for weekend specials was given away Saturday. He said the food loss would be "considerable."

"Being a small independent, everything we do is homemade here," Gonzales said Friday. "We had quite a bit of stuff ready for dinner. We'll have to discard a whole bunch of food. We can't refreeze this stuff."

Mi Cocina de Amor closed Thursday evening about 6 p.m. and had to send "quite a few tables" of customers home after the "do not use" order was lifted.

Gonzales said by Friday evening, he had been solicited for lawsuits, though he hadn't yet participated in legal filings. He said he "isn't the kind of individual to file a lawsuit," but wouldn't rule out the possibility in the future.

He also said he didn't think West Virginia American Water is to blame.

"I'm not a big corporate entity - this is my only baby right now," he said. "This is the kind of thing that would put a less strong small business out in a hurry."

The health department is keeping an updated list of reopened restaurants on its website. Restaurants in areas not affected by the "do not use" order - like those in St. Albans - have stayed open throughout the weekend, with some offering clean water for residents to take home.

Officials respond

As restaurants struggle to reopen and retail stores and hotels take a financial hit, some economic promotion agencies in Charleston had already begun to look to what will happen once the water crisis is over.

East End Main Street Director Ric Cavender said his organization is in the process of developing a two-week neighborhood-wide promotion to begin once the "do not use" ban is lifted. The title of the event and details will be released later this week, and Cavender said it's meant to help get businesses back on their feet.

"We're asking each business in the district to offer some discount or sale," he said Sunday. "The general thing is to get back to business in the East End."

Cavender said like everywhere else in the affected area, all restaurants have had to close, though a few were reopening under the conditional use permits.

However, restaurants aren't the only ones feeling a financial impact from the chemical spill. Retail establishments are also taking a hit due to lack of demand.

"They're open, but people just aren't out shopping right now," Cavender said of retail businesses. "(The chemical spill) is also affecting businesses that weren't forced to close."

Charleston Convention and Visitors' Bureau Chief Executive Officer Alisa Bailey acknowledged the negative economic impact the chemical leak has and will have on businesses.

"A lot of independent restaurants live day to day," she said.

Bailey said Friday her organization will be analyzing those economic effects once the water ban has subsided and will try to "see what we can do" to try to offset those losses.

"It's just one of those things you can't predict," she said.

Hotels also remained open for business, and Bailey said they had bottled water on hand, though guests couldn't shower or drink the tap water.

In addition, most retail stores, including the Charleston Town Center mall, were able to stay open throughout the water shortage.

Visitors affected

While Kanawha Valley residents were stuck without tap water, there's another group of people caught off guard - visitors to the city.

At least two major events were scheduled in Charleston over the last weekend - the Rough & Rowdy Brawl at the Charleston Civic Center and the 82nd Annual West Virginia Association of Fairs & Festivals Convention & Queens Pageant at the Charleston Marriott.

The ongoing water outage left those events in limbo.

As recently as Friday morning, the Rough & Rowdy Brawl was still on for Friday evening, complete with hand sanitizer and bottled water, event organizer Chris Smith said.

Yet by Friday afternoon, it had been postponed to Jan. 17-18.

For the pageant, organizers said the show would still go on.

"We are moving forward," said the event's organizer, Jeanie Smith, on Friday.

Pageant members had reservations at the Marriott in downtown Charleston and planned to stay at the hotel in preparation for the pageant.

Smith said the contestants were taking the water issue in stride and were still "having a good time."

"They're making lemonade out of lemons," she said.

If nothing else, Smith said the situation at least puts everyone in the same boat.

"We're all on an equal playing field, no one's taking a shower," she said.

Bailey said Friday travelers to Charleston for events should check with the event organizers to see if there are any changes before making the trip to the Kanawha Valley.

Contact writer Matt Murphy at Matt.Murphy@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4817. Follow him on Twitter @DMLocalGov and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Daily

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