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 multimillion-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 received 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 said 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.
Karen VanHoose, who lives near Lake of the Ozarks, 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 doesn’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.