Eureka Springs Is an LGBTQ Haven. Will It ‘Pay the Price’ of COVID-19?

Nico Lang

It’s next to impossible to socially distance in Eureka Springs. Built in the late 1880s as a rural spa village, the northwest Arkansas hamlet is defined by painstakingly preserved Victorian buildings and narrow cobblestone streets that snake through its perpetually bustling entertainment district.

Just as European settlers traveled to Eureka Springs for the promise of the healing waters of the Ozark mountains, hundreds of tourists crowd its narrow sidewalks on the weekends, brushing past each other to buy handmade jewelry at the Ladybug Emporium or a cup of coffee at Local Flavor Café.

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Historically, its busy walkways were part of Eureka Springs’ unique charm. At any moment, visitors are likely to run into other guests staying at their bed and breakfast and even the mayor. In a city of just over 2,000 residents, you couldn’t avoid other people, even if you wanted to.

But bumping into people is exactly what Lamont Richie is worried about. Richie, 72, is the owner of Quicksilver, a fine arts and crafts gallery in Eureka Springs which until recently had been closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The town’s tourism sector was decimated when Gov. Asa Hutchinson banned out-of-state recreational travel earlier this year, but that restriction was lifted on May 5. Most businesses in Eureka Springs, including Quicksilver, opened their doors for Memorial Day weekend—with hand sanitizer stations at the door and requirements that customers wear a mask.

But Richie said protocols to encourage public health have been difficult to enforce. Mayor Robert Berry—known to locals as “Butch”—issued an order eliminating parking spaces in the town center for the weekend to allow visitors to keep six feet of distance from one another by walking in the road.

According to Richie, the order had to be withdrawn by the end of the day because City Hall received “so many complaints about having taken away 24 parking spaces” from people who got ticketed. 

“Some people moved the orange cones and parked in spaces that said ‘no parking,’” he said. “Our government is going to do what the loudest group demands at any given time. That’s what happened on Friday.”

Business owners said Eureka Springs has been put in a difficult position as news spreads about COVID-19 outbreaks at a pool party in the Lake of the Ozarks and poultry factories in northwest Arkansas. Many hotels, restaurants, and bars—the latter of which were allowed to resume operation as of May 26—had no choice but to reopen because they were running out of money, even despite the potential threat to their own lives.

In Arkansas, wearing personal protective equipment in public and maintaining social distancing are suggestions, not requirements, and tourists to Eureka Springs have largely responded by ignoring them. 

Richie said the situation is a “real clusterfuck” from the top down, given that a recent report from the New York Times found that the rate of new COVID-19 infections in northwest Arkansas is among the highest in the nation. “We’re all going to be paying the price for some time to come,” he said. 

“We just got a little bit of everything here” 

Bryan Drake’s story is similar to many of the townspeople who call Eureka Springs home. Drake’s family has lived in the town for four generations, and his grandmother, now 92, started working at the Crescent Hotel—which bills itself as “America’s Most Haunted Hotel”—when she was 15 years old.

The site, which is practically ripped out of a Stephen King novel, used to serve as an experimental hospital for a doctor who peddled dangerous “cancer cures,” injecting patients with carbolic acid. Many died.

Drake moved back to Eureka Springs nine years ago after he and his now ex-partner decided to purchase the Brydan Suites, a ranch-style motel with petite lighthouses affixed to the roof. What Drake—a 50-year-old with a seemingly endless cascade of flower-child locks—appreciated about the town was that its macabre history has a way of attracting outsiders and nonconformists.

Hippies migrated to the picturesque town in the 1970s, followed soon after by an influx of queer people looking for a refuge in the South. Drake described Eureka Springs as “a cleaner version of New Orleans,” with an “old world charm to it.”

“It’s a big melting pot of just about every kind of person from every walk of life—every creed, sex, and religion,” Drake said. “We just got a little bit of everything here.” 

That mosaic also includes tourists from surrounding states like Texas and Oklahoma, who flock to Eureka Springs for events like its Zombie Crawl in October and thrice-annual Diversity Weekends, in which the town is blanketed in rainbow Pride flags.

Although those visitors bring revenue and income to the town, Drake said it’s become a point of concern for Eureka Springs’ permanent residents. “Are they going to bring something here?” he has wondered to himself. “How’s it going to spread through our little community?”

Like most businesses in Eureka Springs, Brydan Suites was open on Memorial Day, and Drake noticed that out-of-towners who booked rooms at the motel largely weren’t wearing protective gear. He asks that guests wear a mask during check-in, and only one person at a time is allowed in the front office. But after customers leave with their room key, Drake said the lack of statewide regulation means his business “can’t enforce anything as far as wearing masks or anything else.”

“After they check in, their mask comes off,” he said. “They’re out socializing with other guests. It’s amazing to me that nobody’s following that safety protocol to protect themselves, as well as protect others.”

Reports of tourists declining to take basic safety measures for public health were common throughout the holiday weekend. Inger Svendsen, 46, who runs Alpine Liquor with her grandfather, said that she counted the number of people she saw with masks—whether they were wearing them on their face or were holding them in their hand—when she was in downtown Eureka Springs on Saturday. Out of the hundreds of people she saw walking by, she tallied just 12. 

“You wouldn’t know that COVID-19 was happening in Eureka,” Svendsen said. “It's almost surreal driving through town.”

According to Svendsen, the pandemic has highlighted a “divide” that has long existed in Eureka Springs. Although the city was the first in Arkansas to enact an LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance and was its only municipality to pass a resolution in support of same-sex marriage, Eureka Springs also has a strong evangelical contingent.

Atop Magnetic Mountain sits the Christ of the Ozarks, an ivory sculpture of Jesus erected in 1966 by Gerald L.K. Smith, a white supremacist who founded the America First Party. The 66-foot figure, with arms outstretched, overlooks the Eureka Springs amphitheater, home to the religious outdoor stage show “The Great Passion Play.”

The thousands of visitors who come every year to witness a recreation of the last days of Jesus Christ have frequently clashed with Eureka Springs’ LGBTQ populace in uncomfortable ways. Rev. Randall Christy, who oversees the passion play, was a leading opponent of the nondiscrimination ordinance.

After Eureka Springs was hailed as the “Gay Capital of the Ozarks” in a New York Times article, Christy lamented that Christian families “don’t want to expose their children to that.”

“We’ve always been very divided,” Svendsen said, adding that the lack of protective gear worn around town is also a product of misinformation surrounding COVID-19. “Some people think [wearing a mask] takes away their freedom. I think we gravitate to whatever we can see online that resonates with us personally—whether it’s fear-based or gives us power, it makes us feel strong or makes us feel scared.”

“I want to be safe” 

What makes the divide over mask-wearing in Eureka Springs particularly fraught is that its queer community is predominantly older. Locals commonly estimate that 30 percent of the town’s permanent residents identify as LGBTQ—although no one interviewed for this story seemed to know where that figure comes from—and many are retirees who were drawn to the slower place of life it offers.

Richie said he and his husband, Steve, moved to Eureka Springs from Houston exactly 30 years ago because they were looking to live somewhere that was “small in size but not in outlook.”

After visiting Taos, New Mexico and Asheville, North Carolina, the pair spent a weekend in Eureka Springs and knew immediately it was their forever home. Everywhere they went they were running into other same-sex couples, Richie recalled. “Our realtor is a lesbian,” he said. “She and her wife have been together for as long as Steve and I have. We wanted to be able to live comfortably, openly.”

That safe haven has been threatened by COVID-19, however. According to the Centers for Disease Control, people over the age of 65 are at high risk of severe illness if they come into contact with the novel coronavirus.

Varying demographic surveys suggest the town’s median age is anywhere from 52 to 57, meaning the typical resident is on the cusp of being in the high-risk group. What’s more, national advocacy organizations like the Human Rights Campaign have warned that LGBTQ people have unique vulnerabilities to COVID-19 because of disproportionate rates of smoking, lung cancer, and immunosuppression from HIV.

John Rankine, who has lived in Eureka Springs with his husband, Billy, for 24 years, turned 65 on Thursday. The milestone was less than auspicious, given the circumstances.

Rankine was recently forced to close Eureka Fine Art, a gallery and cooperative that housed work from six local artists, because of the pandemic. Not only was the venture financially unsustainable with 35 million unemployed Americans now having less disposable income to spend on art, but the artists Rankine works with are all in their late sixties and seventies. The oldest is 80.

“I’m the baby of the group,” he said. “It just wasn’t worth the risk to the fellow artists.”

While Rankine plans to continue showing artwork at Brews, a coffeehouse and taproom he owns with his husband, and has begun experimenting with virtual gallery space, others have been forced into a more precarious financial situation.

Henry Branstetter, 56, estimated that the Tower House Inn, which he spent two years restoring with his husband, Tom, lost around $20,000 in potential revenue when Hutchinson effectively cut off tourism to the state in March. Even with the rest of the town reopening, Branstetter said his business has remained closed because the Tower House Inn also happens to be their home. “I want to do my part,” he said. “I want to be safe.” 

Financial hits like these were ubiquitous. Drake estimated that Brydan Suites lost up to $9,000 a month while the town was shut down, while Richie took out credit cards to pay for the inventory at Quicksilver. Even as tourists return to Eureka Springs, Branstetter said he has already begun to see “any number of small businesses exit the premises” because they simply couldn’t afford to take on more debt. 

“You'll drive down through the evening and somebody will be loading up a truck,” he said. “Usually rents here are month by month, not year to year. At a time like this, [people are] moving out.” 

Other businesses have chosen to persist in the hope that they can make back what was lost. Many of the restaurants and sidewalk cafes which opened even prior to the Memorial Day rush were those who were not eligible for government assistance, whether it was unemployment or the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) through the Small Business Administration.

Business owners in Arkansas who are classified as “self-employed” couldn’t apply for pandemic relief until May 5, when the state changed the eligibility guidelines. Branstetter said he still doesn’t qualify for PPP assistance because he doesn’t “really have a paycheck, per se,” given that he pays himself.

Although there are just 10 recorded cases of COVID-19 cases in the surrounding county—and it remains unclear as of now how many of those are in Eureka Springs—Hutchinson warned of an oncoming “second peak” in Arkansas. The current number of cases statewide is just under 6,000. Richie said he doesn’t believe “anybody has a real game plan in place” if the unmasked throng flooding the streets results in the further coronavirus infections. 

“We have been relatively free from the disease affecting us directly,” Richie said. “The fear about opening up Eureka was that our population will swell by thousands on a weekend, and these folks are coming from areas around us that are still fighting the disease. At the end of the day, everybody has to do what is in their best interest.”

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