LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo. — Bars couldn’t keep up with the demand for Coors Light. Same with auto dealerships and new cars.
Boat dealers had trouble keeping up and construction crews ran out of lumber needed to build new homes. The real estate market heated up so much that buyers made unsolicited multi-million-dollar offers on lakefront homes.
And restaurants filled reservations even at odd hours late in the afternoon or night as one of the most uncertain tourist seasons ever at the Lake of the Ozarks turned into a record summer boom.
The travel industry was among the first and hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic as airlines cut flights, hotels furloughed staff and cruise ships halted all travel.
But not here.
And it all appears to have gotten a boost from what seemed initially like bad publicity.
At the beginning of the season, celebrity gossip site TMZ declared in a big and bold headline: WILD OZARK LAKE PARTY. PASS THE CORONA.
“Somebody did a picture and we got some really bad press from TMZ and, you know, from all of the networks,” said Lake Ozark Mayor Gerry Murawski. “And for some reason after that, the floodgates opened.
“And I guess because of the national media, boy, we’re one of the winners in this COVID thing.”
To many, the coverage — video and photos of maskless tourists nearly shoulder to shoulder in packed outdoor bars — was an embarrassment. For days, the videos ran on national media, touted as an example of what not to do during a global pandemic and glaring evidence, for some, that people weren’t taking the threat seriously.
But for local businesses, it proved to be a magnet for travelers looking to get away.
Sure, many came to party at the lakeside pools and bars. But the lake also hosted plenty of first-time guests who rented a condo or home for a few nights and kept their distance from others.
The relatively low case numbers also lured tourists. By late May, the three lake-area counties — Camden, Miller and Morgan — had fewer than 55 total cases.
And though those numbers have climbed significantly after the months of summer tourism, cases of the virus at Lake of the Ozarks haven’t been as high as in other parts of Missouri.
So far, the three counties have had a total of 1,443 cases, according to numbers Saturday morning. As for active cases, the tri-county area currently has around 240.
But figures for Camden and Miller and Morgan counties don’t include the tourists who tested positive for the virus once they returned home.
Businesses say the summer season, which traditionally falls off after Labor Day, is lasting longer. Even as pumpkin stands begin dotting the surrounding highways, cars with license plates from Illinois, Michigan and Louisiana continue flocking to the region.
And last weekend was one of the busiest yet, as an estimated 100,000-plus motorcyclists converged for a bike festival from Wednesday to Sunday, one of the last and liveliest events of the tourist season.
By Thursday, thousands of bikers had filled the Bagnel Dam Strip, buying drinks from street vendors and packing into bars like Marty Byrde’s Bar & Grill, named for the lead character in the Netflix series “Ozark.”
Inside Blondies Burger Bar, Karen VanHoose, of Camden County’s Linn Creek, felt relatively safe eating at a table set apart from other diners Thursday evening. But the mass of people outdoors made her worry about the safety of the 14th annual Bikefest Lake of the Ozarks, which she usually enjoys attending.
“I go to it every year. And every year it’s crazy, but last night I panicked,” she said on Friday. “I might have seen two people with a mask out of all those thousands of people.”
She knows those kinds of crowds are good for business, but she said many locals are tired of the influx.
“It’s just been totally crazy. I know it’s good for the economy, but it don’t help me out,” said the 57-year-old.
And she and other locals, as well as officials, still worry about the virus and its possible spread.
Every day, for months now, Murawski wakes up and checks the numbers of current cases.
“To see, Hey, where are we?” he said. “Do we still have it under control? I meet with our health departments once a week, and say, Is there anything going on we should be aware of? Should we do anything different? We just kind of hang on.”
VanHoose said her son recently bought a boat, and on a recent outing he brought more than 15 friends, some from St. Louis and Kansas City.
“Every single one of them got coronavirus,” she said. “People bring it here and they take it back to where they live.”
The boom at the lake has caught the attention of officials more than 100 miles away in Branson, traditionally one of Missouri’s biggest tourist destinations. In a recent debate over extending Branson’s mask mandate, one alderman questioned whether a lack of such an order was responsible for drawing more tourists to the Lake of the Ozarks.
While market research has shown travel to Branson has held up better than many other destinations, traffic has been down significantly since the pandemic began. And officials at the lake believe they have drawn more travelers this year than their counterparts in Branson.
Still, nobody at the Lake of the Ozarks expected this kind of a summer.
Officials never put out a blanket invitation telling people to come. It just happened. And few were prepared for the surge in tourism.
“It was like, OK you know, we’re doing our thing, and we’re trying to literally survive and people said they want to be a part of that,” Murawski said. “It wasn’t so much that they came to snub their nose at the virus, or any of that, because I don’t think that’s true.
“I’ve seen people from just about every state from the East Coast and the West Coast down here. People who didn’t even know where the Ozarks were.”
—What a difference Memorial Day made
From the middle of March to about the end of April, the lake area pretty much shut down. Most businesses closed, except for the essential ones like grocery stories.
“Things looked very bleak,” Murawski said. “It looked like we would lose 50% or more of our businesses.”
At the Dogpatch gift shop on the Bagnell Dam Strip, Carolyn Richards wondered if the store would be stuck with a pile of inventory it had ordered months ahead of the summer season.
“We didn’t know what to expect. We were closed for almost two months,” she said.
As Don Neuharth, a member of the Lake of the Ozarks Tri-County Lodging Board, put it: “In March and April, it was looking like it could be very bad.”
Then came May. And it brought a bit of hope.
Restaurants opened with scaled-back capacity. Outdoor seating was popular.
“And we did a lot of carry out,” Murawski said. “Oh my God, did we. So businesses were at least hanging on.”
Then came Memorial Day. And the photos and videos, and the nasty comments on social media.
Cancellations for vacation rentals started pouring in. So did the negative emails and attacks on social media.
“Our first impression was, ‘Oh my God this is awful,’” Murawski said. “You know we were just coming out of this thing, it was like, ‘I hope it doesn’t kill us.’ And I use that as a two-way thing on that.”
But then those cancellations were quickly, almost immediately, turning into reservations. Restaurants started to see more and more customers.
Yeah, some people wanted to stay away, but it seemed more people wanted to come. People from South Dakota and Boston, Arizona and the Florida Keys, who had never heard of the Lake of the Ozarks, wanted to hear — and see — more.
And that’s continued for months now.
The Dogpatch has stayed busy since Memorial Day weekend. And now Richards worries more about keeping merchandise in stock.
“We can’t get stuff in fast enough,” she said. “I’ve been here 27 years and it’s the best year I’ve ever seen. And we’re still going strong.”
At Baxter’s Lakeside Grill, staff have voluntarily spread tables apart and removed half of the barstools to help keep diners apart. But the restaurant, which sells everything from burgers to lobster tails, has remained busy throughout the summer.
Even traditionally slow times like the middle of the afternoon or 10 p.m. still have filled up with reservations.
“Our sales from last summer to this summer are almost identical with less tables,” said Corey Roberts, the chef and general manager.
He said the lake has seen more first-time visitors than ever before as people learned about the lake from news coverage. He said one group of guys flew in on a private jet from New York, arriving at Baxter’s at 9:45 one night. They spent $1,000 on wine alone.
“They wanted to get out of the city,” he said. “A lot of our regulars actually stayed away this summer. They just didn’t want to be a part of the crowds. It’s very different.”
And it’s a much different narrative to the season than the one business owners and city leaders feared was being written early this year when Covid-19 first hit.
“So the threat we were in back in April, we somehow escaped that,” Murawski said. “Most businesses down here, this is an all time record for them.
“And if you consider the first four months of this year were virtually nothing, that’s amazing.”
—Hot real estate market
As tourists flock to the lake for long weekends, many are looking to put down more permanent roots. The market for homes and condos has heated up over the summer as folks look for a vacation property or choose to relocate to the lake, where they can just as easily work remotely as anyplace else.
Homes are flying off the market in a matter of hours. And many people have stories of unsolicited offers on their homes — one even received a $3 million offer from a stranger desperate to find a place.
Sara Veile, a state director for the Lake of the Ozarks Board of Realtors, said buyers seem to be coming from farther away — from California and Colorado rather than typical markets like Kansas City and Iowa.
In June and July, 572 homes sold across the lake area, well above the 304 homes that sold over those two months in 2019.
The average price of a single-family lakeside home shot up to $412,436 this year — an 11% increase over 2019’s average of $370,782. At the same time, the lake area’s inventory has dried up: it had about five months’ worth of inventory on hand in July of this year, compared to a full year’s supply the previous July, according to the board. And homes are selling within hours of listing.
“If you’re listing between $100,000 and $500,000 and if it’s priced correctly, it’s selling within the first three days,” said Veile, who is an agent at RE/MAX at the Lake. “Our days on market have never been so low and our prices have never been this high.”
She said tourists and buyers alike are flocking to the lake as a vacation getaway, whether they come for socialization or isolation.
“Even if they want to social distance and they don’t want to be one of those people on the national news at the bar, it still gives them an option to come here and to do something different,” Veile said. “People got money back from cruises, flights, canceled vacations and said maybe we need to just buy a place where the whole family can come together and we can have an escape.”
—National exposure changes landscape
Shady Gators is the classic lakeside escape.
The double-decker bar and grill, decorated in shades of green and gator imagery, overlooks the lake at mile marker 7.
On a breezy weekday last week, a shirtless man worked on a pile of nachos with a cold beer on the side. At another table, a woman in a dress ordered a Diet Coke with vodka that quickly arrived in a plastic cup.
At the adjoining Lazy Gators, two swim-up bars, an amphitheater and white beach loungers were prepared for two big concerts planned for the weekend.
Co-owner Jeremy Gorham said the business has been busier than ever as travelers come in from faraway destinations like California, New York and Florida.
“If you’re from Missouri, you’re kind of an outcast,” he joked.
The national exposure certainly changed the visitor mix here. But Gorham said many people are also flocking to the lake to regain a sense of normalcy during these abnormal times. Some travelers have checked out of his rental homes in tears, thanking him for remaining open.
“They couldn’t believe how normal it was,” he said. “For those two, three days they were here, people had the time of their lives because they were tired of being cooped up.”
His boat and vacation home rentals have been booked up nearly every weekend. And even a lake staple like beer has been in limited supply as bars see record crowds.
“It’s tough for me to get Coors Light, Miller Lite in stock now,” he said. “We were out of Corona there for a while. We just couldn’t get it in.”
Gorham came to the lake 22 years ago as a college student from Kansas City and never looked back. His business has installed hand sanitizer stations, used disposable menus and single-use condiments and encouraged people to keep their distance, though he acknowledged people are not necessarily choosing to do so.
He was worried about his business early on in the pandemic. And after the crush of travelers on Memorial Day weekend, everyone at the lake feared a massive coronavirus outbreak might be imminent.
“Everybody down here crossed their fingers, closed their eyes and prayed,” he said. “Then, once two weeks were up it was like all right, we’re OK. That’s when things really took off.”
Now, he’s much more at ease with it all, greeting newcomers with handshakes and waiting tables now that many summertime employees have left to go back to college.
But he knows that the economy at the lake is an anomaly in a time when many businesses are going under across the country because of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus.
“We’ve been very lucky and blessed,” he said. “This paved the way for the lake for the next 200 years.”
—’Never seen anything like it’
The pandemic has been especially good for owners of vacation rental homes and condos, where people can still enjoy the lake without the crowds of a hotel or big resort.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Russell Burdette, owner of Your Lake Vacation, which rents about 100 vacation homes in the area. “Last year was our best year and we’re up 30% over last year. It’s not even close.”
Burdette says many travelers who canceled big vacations to places like Hawaii or Europe opted for a lake getaway instead.
“We have a lot of new people here,” he said. “When the story ran on TMZ Memorial Day weekend, it ran in Britain, Europe and Canada. We were getting calls from all over. That was the best publicity that money could never buy.”
Not having a mask mandate has made a “big difference” for the lake, Burdette said. And the number of local cases remained low enough to keep people comfortable.
Your Lake Vacation rented every unit over Labor Day weekend for the first time ever. It was also booked solid for several summer weekends. On its busiest weekends, his business normally has 20 to 30 back-to-back reservations, where one group checks out at 10 a.m. and another group arrives by 3 p.m. One weekend this summer, they had 90 of those reservations.
While people are renting homes and condos at record rates, Burdette, a member of the area’s lodging association board, said local hotels have been struggling. Hotels and resorts have lost the convention business that keeps their rooms full through the summer and fall months. That will hurt area restaurants and bars that generally see a steady stream of traffic toward the back end of the year.
Aside from rental homes, some tourists went with RVs or even pitched tents for a camping vacation.
“I wouldn’t say we have necessarily had our best year ever, speaking just for our facility,” said Neuharth, of Oyo Hotel, Lake of the Ozarks. “I would call it not the worst year.”
But what they have seen is some families who have reserved vacation rental homes arriving a day or two earlier or staying a day or two later in hotels.
“In March and April, it was looking like it could be very bad,” Neuharth said. “We soldiered on and it’s not turned out to be as bad as it might have been from what some of the forecasts that were taking place earlier on.”
Like sports teams or farmers, he said, tourism businesses can always look forward to the next season. But it’s hard to tell if summer 2020 was a fluke or if it was the beginning of a new era at the lake.
“When (tourists) get back to wherever they came from, they’ll have a good feeling about Lake of the Ozarks,” Murawski said. “In most cases, I think they’ll be back. … They’ll tell their friends, ‘Oh we found this diamond, you ought to go there, it’s cool.’ “