As Branson began to cautiously welcome back tourists last spring, business owners in the Ozarks tourist town had no idea what to expect.
Would people still visit after weeks of staying at home to avoid the quickly spreading coronavirus? How would theaters, restaurants and hotels that rely on big crowds survive a global pandemic?
This spring is an entirely different story. Branson is already on pace for a record year with a strong start in January and February and booming business among spring break travelers.
But just as the tourism season is ramping up, city leaders last week moved to repeal a local mask mandate — reigniting the debate over whether the mask mandate ultimately helped or hurt businesses.
The mask mandate has been hotly debated since it was first implemented in July. And it defined this month’s municipal elections as a wave of candidates who opposed the measure won seats in office.
A new mayor and aldermen were sworn in last Wednesday. By the end of their first meeting, they had repealed the mask mandate, leaving local businesses to decide whether they would carry on with their own requirements that customers wear masks.
“I believe the community was crystal clear and sent a loud message to city hall,” Mayor Larry Milton, a former alderman who ran in opposition to the mask mandate, said at his first meeting at the helm.
It’s uncertain how much the mask mandate may have hurt business, or how the absence of one will improve it.
“But there are some people in our community that absolutely believe it will make a difference and we’ll see a larger increase in travel,” said Lynn Berry, communications director at the Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We certainly had mixed comments from guests about the mask mandate.”
While local officials did hear resistance from some travelers about the mask mandate, she said it’s hard to tell what effect it may have had on business. That’s because other travelers cited the safety measure as a primary reason to come to Branson. Since the city mandate was lifted as of Friday, several businesses have hung signs asking customers to wear masks. Others were happy to let shoppers in with no face coverings.
“I think it’s going to be a mix,” Berry said. “I’ve heard both ways.”
Branson had a stronger than expected 2020. Even after a shutdown of many businesses early in the year, summer travel bounced back and persisted through winter. Now the city seems poised for one of its strongest summers yet.
“The phone is constantly ringing downstairs at our welcome center with people asking about what’s open,” Berry said. “We are optimistic.”
‘The town was really packed’
Traffic at the area’s biggest destination, Silver Dollar City, dropped to about 1 million visitors last year, down by about half of a normal year. But this year, things are looking up with strong traffic since opening for the season in March.
Like many other businesses, Silver Dollar City had to get creative. It moved most outdoor activities inside, and recently launched its Street Fest, a celebration of street foods and performers.
“Things are going well. It has been a good kickoff to 2021,” said Lisa Rau, spokeswoman for Silver Dollar City.
The park, which sits well outside Branson’s city limits, has been requiring masks for months. But those rules were relaxed last week. Customers must still keep face coverings on in lines, on rides and indoors. But masks are now optional outdoors when people can spread apart.
Silver Dollar City has also ended temperature checks at entrance gates, though Rau said the park is monitoring the pandemic daily and may adjust procedures as needed.
She said the masking requirement has drawn some visitors to the park, but it’s also kept some away.
“It depends on which side of the aisle you’re on,” Rau said. “Yes, we have had people not come because of our mask requirements. Yes, we have had others come because of our mask requirements.”
Between 2015 and 2019, Branson collected more than $12 million each year in special tourism sales taxes. In 2020, collections dropped by a third, ending the year with $8.6 million in tourism tax collections.
But many categories are rebounding this year. In January and February, amusements, campgrounds and nightly rentals all reported higher sales than in 2020. And some are expecting a record March once those numbers are collected.
“Spring Break was huge in Branson. I mean the town was really packed,” said Cindy Merry, the marketing chair for the Branson Show League.
While travel bounces back, many theaters have still struggled. Most are distancing groups apart, dramatically cutting occupancy — and revenue. Tax collections from Branson theaters plummeted by nearly 40% last year.
“I don’t know any show that is saying we’re not ever opening up again in Branson,” she said. “But there are some theaters that are closed right now and have no intention of opening for a while.”
Bus charter groups are traditionally an important part of the tourism mix in Branson. Those have not recovered in the way that family travel has. But Merry said those operators have started booking trips for the fall and winter months. And she said there seems to be pent-up demand among those groups.
“We’re a tourism town,” she said. “All the people traveling here are probably coming from places where they’re being told not to travel. So it’s a whole different environment.”
‘A sense of relief around town’
Last week, staff at Dick’s 5 & 10 took down their signs about the city’s mask mandate. But they were immediately replaced with new ones reminding customers that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends face coverings and advertising the availability of free masks at the store.
“We are not going to require them. But we are going to strongly recommend it,” said Steve Hartley, co-owner of the big general store in downtown Branson. “We’re going to make the very best of the decision our board of aldermen has made.”
Staff will still wear masks and work to limit crowds, he said. Hartley hopes last week’s decision will put to an end months of controversy in the town.
“I think there’s somewhat of a sense of relief around town,” he said.
The year has gotten off to a strong start at Dick’s 5 & 10, which is packed with aisles of candy, souvenirs and collectibles. The traditionally slow months of January and February were fairly busy. And March was even better as crowds of people enjoying spring break and federal stimulus dollars flooded into town.
“And the momentum has just moved right into April,” Hartley said.
Last summer, many travelers chose to make the short drive to Branson rather than flying to far-flung destinations. Hartley expects a similar trend this vacation season.
“Our customers are ready to get out and do something. They missed out in 2020,” he said. “The future’s very, very rosy.”
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