Photos of packed pool bars and seas of sunburnt skin went viral over the weekend, as Lake of the Ozarks made national news for its massive influx of Memorial Day vacationers. From CNN to TMZ to clickbait sites scattered across the interwebs, Lake of the Ozarks was trending.
It’s impossible to know how many people visited the Lake last weekend, but the numbers were likely in the hundreds of thousands: Memorial Day marks the start of summer and at Lake of the Ozarks it is the start of a summer season that brings millions of visitors in a 15-week timespan. The huge crowds were predictable, and predicted: in an article published on May 20 at LakeExpo.com, we reported local vacation home rentals and hotel reservations had reached record levels. Locked-up and Covid-weary Americans were ready for fun in the sun, at the nation’s most popular recreational lake. People desperately wanted to go to their favorite vacation spot—and those who didn’t, stayed home. Local vacation rental management companies reported mass reservation cancellations in March and April, followed by record-level reservations for Memorial Day weekend. One vacation rental manager put it this way: those who were worried about the virus cancelled their trip to the Lake, and they were replaced by those who weren’t worried. To paraphrase up one wistful employee's laments to LakeExpo last weekend at a store in St. Charles, Mo., “Lake of the Ozarks? I wish I was there this weekend. That’s where everyone’s going… but I had to work!”
Photos of all that fun in the sun were met with all the predictable responses, from "hell-yeah’s!" to "you murderers!" But photos and videos of a wide-open Lake of the Ozarks trending on social media and flashing across expert-laden news channels will have another completely predictable result: they’ll draw even more people here. Lake of the Ozarks has more shoreline than the state of California (1,150 miles, compared to Cali’s meager 840 miles), and while California haltingly reopens, much of Missouri—including Lake of the Ozarks—was back to near-normal by last weekend. Images of summer vacation at the Lake stand in stark contrast to photos published by news media in the past few months: empty stores, empty shelves, serious eyes behind sterile masks, and stern medical experts behind lecterns with new guidance, statistics, and warnings. Last weekend’s photos depicted populated swimming pools, abundant libations, smiles and horrible dance moves, and no identifiable masks or experts in sight. For Americans ready to resume normal life, those pictures look like bliss. They promise vacation, relaxation, retreat, and amusement in the literal sense: the opportunity to not be burdened by having to think about much of anything.
Will the Lake area experience fallout from this Memorial Day revelry? To hear many self-proclaimed experts say it, there’s zero doubt. But no one knows the future, and so the long-term effects of full-blown summer at the Lake on the heels of the Covid spring are unpredictable. But here are two ways this could go:
1) In a few weeks, a rash of Covid cases across the Midwest will be (correctly or incorrectly) connected to Lake of the Ozarks. (By the way, if you’re hoping for this outcome, there’s actually something wrong with you.) Depending on the national mood at that point, state or local health departments seek to clamp down on tourism activity here. We predict that will not go well. Businesses at the Lake are ready to serve those who are ready to come, and the threat of closure in the height of their brief money-making season is essentially the kiss of death. Many will resist.
2) No dramatic increase in cases is seen (other than the moderate increase many health officials are already calling for). No apologies are issued. Summer proceeds as normal, and the Lake becomes a proving-ground for reopening public places.
Let’s all hope for the second scenario, as the country, the state, and the Lake community seek to climb out of this Covid-shaped pit and rebuild our lives in the summer sunshine.