Virus dampens popular Missouri summer tradition - InfoNews

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Virus dampens popular Missouri summer tradition

June 20, 2020 - 8:37 AM

ST. LOUIS - Bob Franklin’s canoe rental shop on Missouri’s Black River has withstood 43 years of history, bolstered each year by crowds interested in getting on the river during float season. But his shop has never encountered anything like a viral pandemic.

“We’re still trying to figure it all out. I don’t have any positive answers,” said Franklin, owner of Franklin Floats near Lesterville in southeast Missouri.

Franklin said he’s anxious. He’s had to prevent people from walking into his riverside shop for fear of spreading the coronavirus, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

“It’s human nature to want to walk up and shake hands,” Franklin said. “But I’m in that age bracket where the governor says shelter in place. How do you do that? How do you greet people when you’re sheltering in place?”

Franklin is not alone. River rental operators across the state, from small shops to large riverside resorts, have been forced to formulate cleaning plans, encourage social distancing and adopt other measures as they anxiously anticipate crowds that flock to Missouri’s riverways for the floating season. The popular summer pastime for Missourians typically begins Memorial Day weekend and runs through Labor Day weekend.

Franklin said his biggest concern is transporting customers to the Black River, which he does by bus. Impatience festers as people wait to get on the bus, even outside pandemic conditions, he said.

“I know how people act when they’re trying to get on the bus: ‘I’m not waiting for the next one, I’m getting on this one,’” Franklin said.

Ashley Wilfong, general manager of concessions at Meramec State Park, said that in order to maintain social distancing, the park is only filling half the seats on buses that take customers to the Meramec River.

“We’re basically cutting the load we can take in half, but we’re trying to hire more bus drivers so we can take more trips,” Wilfong said. “And we’re warning people — the buses will smell like bleach. We spray the seats between every trip.”

Wilfong said she also expects extra washing of the watercraft this year will require her staff to re-apply sealant about four times as often as they would in a normal summer.

“Everything we have smells like cleaner, basically,” Wilfong said.

Stephanie Chatterjee, owner of the Gasconade Hills Resort on the Gasconade River, said she’s prepared for the summer crowds, though business was cut in half over Memorial Day weekend. Chatterjee said she rented out four cabins over the holiday weekend compared with the 12 she rented last year near the same time.

Route 66 Canoe Rental, which serves the Big Piney and Gasconade rivers, shut down completely over the recent holiday weekend. Owner Andy Sheldon estimated he lost more than $1,000 in revenue.

Another outfitter, Old Cove Canoe and Kayak on the Meramec River, also shut down. Owner Darryl Crites said his concerns over the coronavirus outbreak led to his decision to close for the holiday. He lost an estimated $5,000.

“Global pandemic was not on my budget list,” Crites said.

In addition to virus concerns, the Meramec’s water level remained high that week from consistent rain, preventing some operators from sending floaters out.

Wilfong said operators make the determination whether to send floaters out when water levels are high.

This was the case for Julie Bass with Bass’ River Resort near Steelville, Missouri. Bass said business was already harmed by the outbreak before the river rose. Along with her children, she runs a business that’s been in the family for 52 years. The resort has 100 kayaks, 100 rafts and 400 canoes, but the family only rented equipment to about 900 people on a recent Saturday compared with the usual 1,800 on a sunny Saturday.

Bass said the resort cancelled four major events as the virus spread. Business will stay average over the summer, she predicted.

Chatterjee, on the Gasconade River, said she’s had to formulate detailed plans for cleaning equipment, such as bleaching floating paddles and disinfecting boats. With the downturn in business, Chatterjee says at the moment she can only keep one housekeeper on payroll to clean the resort’s cabins.

“I don’t have the business to support it,” Chatterjee said.

She’s hopeful business will increase and she’s confident the resort’s clients will be responsible enough to social distance.

“Where you see the party at Lake of the Ozarks and all that crowd . . . here we don’t have that,” Chatterjee said. “It’s just way low key. I’m not concerned.”

Chatterjee was referring to video images of a large crowd at a Lake of the Ozarks bar over Memorial Day weekend, ignoring social distancing guidelines set by the state.

Franklin, on the Black River, said he’s not as confident that those enjoying the river will abide by social distancing guidelines, no matter how many signs he puts up to do so. He said he’d rather close than threaten the health of his patrons.

“That’s what we’ve been telling people — we’re not putting everyone out today, we’re putting your health first and paying the bills later,” Franklin said.

Sheldon, with Route 66 Canoe Rental, said his family has worked on the Big Piney and Gasconade rivers for decades. He said his seven brothers and four sisters love the river as much as he does, but he’s afraid this year.

Sheldon said he follows the Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association to get advice. He said if the association says it’s too dangerous, he’d agree with shutting down for a season.

“There are too many people dying,” Sheldon said.

Franklin said he agrees with Sheldon’s approach — Franklin is taking his business week-to-week, watching virus case numbers in his area. Franklin said he’s always said that floating down Ozark streams is “good, clean fun.”

“We’re gonna get through this, it’s just gonna be a while,” Franklin said.

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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