BRANSON, Mo. — In May 2020, with the pandemic in its early months, Branson looked like a shadow of its former ebullient self. A drive west on the 3-mile strip that bisects the city meant passing shuttered music theaters, a frozen 150-foot Ferris wheel, and endless vacancies at the city’s 200-plus hotels.
But a few miles outside town, off a winding road in the foothills of the Ozarks, Crazy Craig’s Cheeky Monkey was on track for a record year. Brisket smoldered in the smoker. A Miller Lite sign glowed in the dark night sky. Here, just outside city limits, masks were not mandatory nor widely used. And Craig Martinosky, the 66-year-old owner of the tropical themed dive bar, was capitalizing on that distinction.
The mask mandate in Branson lasted until April of this year, becoming a subject of fierce controversy in a city that normally welcomes droves of tourists to its panoply of music shows and themed attractions.
Today, with the mandate lifted and summer travel booming, Crazy Craig’s has competition once again. Traffic on the main drag creeps as slowly as on Mass. Pike at rush hour. Like the rest of the country, southwest Missouri is barreling into a summer of post-pandemic revelry and relief.
The problem is, the pandemic is far from over here.
The number of COVID patients at Mercy Hospital in Springfield — the state’s third-largest city, 50 minutes north of Branson — is at an all-time high, surpassing the worst days of December. Back then, it took four months to reach a pandemic peak of 113 people hospitalized. Now, in just over a month, the tally had risen to 115 with no end in sight. In over 90 percent of cases in the state, the highly contagious Delta variant is to blame. Every person in the ICU as of Tuesday was unvaccinated.
Southwest Missouri has become ground zero for the fourth COVID-19 wave, a disconcerting example of how pandemic fatigue, vaccine hesitancy, and the Delta variant can collide to create an overwhelming eruption of infections. Its residents are well aware they are in the spotlight nationally for resisting vaccination in the face of all this. In interviews, few expressed outright skepticism of the virus or spoke derisively about the inoculated masses in some other sections of the country. Most simply viewed vaccinations, as well as masking, as an individual decision.
“I DO NOT believe it’s my place, or the place of any politician, to endorse, promote or compel any person to get any vaccine,” said Branson Mayor Larry Milton in the local newspaper. “That’s a decision that should be made by each individual in consultation with their doctor and their family.”
And so, even as cases skyrocket and vaccination rates plateau at around 26 percent, Branson remains open for business.
The city is home to a population of just over 11,000, but each year it welcomes some 9 million visitors, most of whom travel by car from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. For those unfamiliar with the scene here, think of the kitschy-ness of Route 1 in its prime paired with the soundtrack of Nashville and the wholesomeness of Disneyland. Homer Simpson once described the place as Vegas as designed by his devoutly Christian neighbor Ned Flanders. Nearly 100 churches dot the Branson area, open to both locals and the churn of weekend visitors. Everyone seems unbelievably kind. Alcohol is sparse. Cowboy hats abound. Helicopter tours buzz above, and a fake Mount Rushmore featuring John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Oliver Hardy, and a giant meatball loom over the strip.
“Branson has many activities to make any person happy no matter what they love,” wrote one visitor in a tourism survey. “My family comes to Branson because the city displays a love for God, freedom, respect for our flag and the love for our country.”
Born and raised in northern Arkansas, Kayla Hilles grew up marveling at this spectacle on family trips. But now, as an ICU nurse at the city’s hospital, Cox Medical Center Branson, all she can think about is how the area has squandered its chance to end the pandemic.
“Just like everybody else, I want this community and its businesses to flourish,” Hilles said. “But I can’t just keep watching people struggle to live. We’re never going to get back to what makes Branson great if we don’t change something.”
Steve Edwards, president of CoxHealth, which oversees six hospitals in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas, has been decidedly more blunt.
“We’re going to care for patients regardless, but deep inside, it’s hard to make that same commitment knowing your patient was someone who had a solution in their hand with the vaccine,” he said at July press conference.
That message incensed Clay Cooper. The 51-year-old Texas-born country singer owns a namesake theater on the strip. He ventured into politics this year by running for alderman on the promise to repeal the mask mandate, a platform shared by then-mayoral candidate Larry Milton. Both won by a landslide. The mandate was lifted within an hour of their swearing in.
“You know what that message tells me? You’re judging people that you’re supposed to be unbiased and caring for,” Cooper said. “If a guy comes in who just shot two police officers, your job is to take care of that man regardless if you agree why he is there.”
Cooper knows firsthand how cruel the virus can be. The Saturday he spoke with a reporter at his theater, his friend was taking his last breaths on a ventilator after a weeklong battle with COVID-19. Randy McConnell, 59, a beloved Branson bass guitarist, died a day later. Still, Cooper remains adamant that the decision to get vaccinated should be an individual choice.
“I got nothing against the vaccine. I don’t think Bill Gates is putting microchip crap in the doses. It comes down to personal choice. The bullying, the shaming, and the pushing of the vaccine is ridiculous,” he said. “The more you shove it, the more you call people idiots and murderers for not doing it, you’re only pushing them further away.”
He did not want his vaccination status publicized. Others who were enjoying Branson last weekend while still unvaccinated offered their reasons.
A couple from Arkansas in town for a vintage Ford truck show was in no rush to get their doses, having contracted COVID earlier in the year. “We will be getting vaccinated soon as the immunity will wear off,” said Kelly Haight, as she stood next to her grandfather’s baby blue 1956 F-100.
A duo from Colorado enduring the hourlong wait at Billy Gail’s, home of the 14-inch pancake, were split. Rhondi Spurz, 71, immunocompromised from back-to-back strokes last year, reluctantly got the vaccine after a friend sang its praises to her. But her grandson, Adam Weaver, 21, is waiting on FDA approval before taking the leap. (The vaccines have been authorized by the FDA for emergency use.)
Branson local Patty Cone, 73, spent her Saturday at Talking Rocks Caverns, heeding the request by her teenage guide to “squeeze in tight” alongside a dozen strangers so that everyone could see the angel-shaped stalactite at the bottom of the cave. Cone said she had no plans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Maybe it’s safe. Maybe it’s not. Either way I am healthy and I don’t want to be one of the sheep led to slaughter if that turns out to be the case,” she said.
It’s hard to square the trauma unfolding within the region’s hospitals with the reborn jubilation of the city. A brigade of Santas in town for a Santa convention filed into Cooper’s theater for a Friday night show. Fireworks dazzled unannounced on Saturday night. Branson-transplant Yakov Smirnoff of ’80s comedy fame is one of the few entertainers to even mention the coronavirus at all. “Laughter vaccine kills COVID-19,” reads a sign outside his theater. Smirnoff had publicly urged a repeal of the mask mandate, saying such a decree could make Branson like Soviet Russia.
And yet, behind the counters at hotels, stores, and attractions, most of the workers still don masks.
“I got my Pifizer shots as soon as I could,” said Myra Stauffer, 64, a Branson resident who clerks in a gift shop. “I think most of us working in hospitality did.”
But such scattered efforts seem like Band-Aids for bullet wounds. Hilles said the small intensive care unit at Cox Medical Center Branson is at full capacity. Those needing a ventilator would typically be transported to hospitals in Springfield (37 miles away). But these days, those hospitals rarely have beds available. When the units are full, ambulances from Branson continue onward to Tulsa (219 miles) and St. Louis (251 miles), putting that vehicle out of commission for an entire day.
“We’re Americans. We all support individual rights and freedoms. But in this situation, it isn’t just about your health, it’s about the health of the people around you,” said Erik Fredericks, the chief administrative officer of Mercy Hospital in Springfield, by phone. “It’s not a personal choice. You’re making a decision that impacts our community. And we’re seeing that decision play out in the walls of our hospital.”
Crazy Craig’s Cheeky Monkey performed so well last year it spawned a sister bar called Crazy Craig’s Treehouse that opened on the Branson main strip in mid-May. On Friday night, Martinosky sat near the front door of his new establishment, welcoming every new guest with a fizzy neon green shot and a well-rehearsed tale.
In one story, he describes a visit to the doctor’s office this spring. The magazine stand sat empty since pandemic precautions banned shared items. No Sports Illustrated. No People Magazine. Suddenly, a random man rushes in, whips out dozens of magazines, fills the rack to the brim, and screams “Freedom!” as he exits. Martinosky, characteristically deadpan and monotone, bellows this last part. And, in unison, his patrons and bartenders respond, “Freedom!”