Update: On Sunday morning, Lake of the Ozarks was trending on Twitter as videos and photos of crowded pools and docks circulated on social media, angering many viewers. That story is posted here.
Docks throughout the Lake of the Ozarks shook as the wake of dozens of boats zipped through the water on Saturday, marking the unofficial start of summer.
The reservoir filled with vacationers as locals and out-of-staters got a hint of the temperatures in Missouri at the end of May. Many folks made the trek to the tourist hot spot for the Memorial Day weekend. They took a break from work, hoping to grab onto a sense of normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down large parts of the nation.
Just in time, local restaurants and attractions were able to open for willing patrons. Those businesses have been preparing for an expected holiday boom, aiming to make a profit after the pandemic affected their bottom lines.
Locals like James McCann, a Missouri State student whose family has lived in the area for 13 years, were pleased to see the influx of tourists. However, McCann said compared to some past peak vacation years, he thought fewer boats were on the water.
“It’s interesting,” McCann said. “I’m just glad to see people are back down here because a lot of these businesses are only open for three, four months out of the year. They gotta make their money somehow.”
Jacob Buehler, who drove from the KC metro, said he’s been coming down in recent months to explore the area. While he rode around at the Lake of the Ozarks, he said he stuck to social distancing measures whenever he touched land.
During those months, though, Buehler said he hasn’t seen a major change on the water.
“It’s been busy,” Buehler said. “It doesn’t seem the lake has slowed down as much as far as boat traffic and stuff like that.
“Obviously, the restaurants were all shut down. Lots of people are coming down here, I think because schools and sports; everything’s been closed. So we haven’t been able to do a whole lot.”
Many at the destination traveled from farther locations, including Illinois and Tennessee.
“It’s been terrific because most things down here are pretty open,” said Robin Sebers, who arrived from Illinois. “It’s as close to normal as you can possibly get. Illinois is still pretty much locked down.”
Despite the steady current of boats, some docks are instituting their own precautions, said Kylee Howard, a dock manager for Paradise Restaurant and Bar. Howard said they’re not allowing many customers to mingle on the dock, lowering foot traffic. They also try to get boats full of gas efficiently, keeping the docks relatively open.
While many are relaxing and on vacation, for the most part, people are still following social distancing and limiting contact with others. Hannah Nasters, from Nashville, said they bought all their food from grocery stores and don’t plan to go to any bars or restaurants.
Besides riding on their boats, the only stops they take are for gas or to call it a day, Nasters said.
“It’s definitely nice to get out of the house,” Nasters said. “Good change of scenery. We’re not really going out to restaurants or anything like that. Still, it’s nice to do something a little bit different; be in the sunshine.”
Nick Topping, from Chicago, said it comes down to common sense. He also pointed out how being on a boat makes it easier to stay apart from other people compared to mingling in a park. Once on land, Topping said they brought masks for the weekend.
“Obviously seeing family and friends, that’s the number one thing: staying safe,” Topping said. “Being able to come down here where it’s a nice little vacation. It minimizes as much contact as possible, get the boat around, get some sun.”
While “normal” is nice, Drew Yanecek said it was strange seeing so many people at the same time again. He said he’s spent the past few months only interacting with a few people. So Yanecek said seeing crowds and strangers has been a strange, but pleasant, change-of-pace.
“It’s perfect, especially with everything going on,” Yanecek said. “It’s nice to get out on Memorial Day weekend, see friends, hang out with people, see crowds. It’s kind of weird, too, at the same time. In a way, you’re not used to it.”
This story was originally published May 23, 2020 5:45 PM.