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Ozarks continues to be in national media spotlight for all the wrong reasons

Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 7:49 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Tracy Kimberlin and Matt Morrow, the leaders of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, usually like it when the Ozarks get some free publicity.

But not these days.

National TV, digital and print media are spotlighting southwest Missouri on a daily basis right now but they’re not pointing out the beauty of the scenery, the various forms of entertainment or the friendliness of its people.

The talk is all about the tremendous surge in COVID-19 new cases brought on by the Delta variant and how the area’s low vaccination rate is allowing it to grow by leaps and bounds every day.

Many of the major media outlets have done stories on the situation in the Ozarks.

Over the weekend the Washington Post, one of the country’s most respected newspapers, had the headline, “The Delta variant is ravaging this Missouri city (Springfield). Many residents are still wary of vaccines.”

The Atlantic, founded in 1857 in Boston, also ventured down to the Ozarks for a story titled, “Delta is driving a wedge through Missouri.”

This past week MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow spent a whole segment of her hour-long show talking about the Ozarks COVID-19 surge, pointing out that the Delta variant originated in India.

“That variant is the one ripping through the Ozarks and southwest Missouri,” she said. “This is a global pandemic. It doesn’t go away anywhere until it goes away everywhere.”

Springfield Mayor Ken McClure, appearing on a national Sunday morning network show, warned that other cities should be preparing for their own surges as well.

Kimberlin and Morrow agreed even though they accepted the fact that Springfield was taking the initial hit in terms of the new surge and the adverse publicity that went with it.

“Somebody’s gonna be first always on things that are good and bad when they happen,” Morrow, the President and CEO of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. “In this case a lot of other communities are going to be dealing with the same thing here very soon. Obviously right now it’s shaping people’s opinion of Springfield. I don’t it’s the kind of thing that five years from now people will think of us as a hot spot for the Delta variant. But the most important thing for people to know is that if you’re going to look at Springfield, take a look at how we address hard things and how people make the best of a bad situation.”

“We’ve competed with other Springfields all over the country for years and years and years,” added Kimberlin, the President of the Springfield Visitors and Convention Bureau. “And it’s unfortunate that we were put in the spotlight because of this. But it’s going to roll across the country and we’re not going to be the last ones to have outbreaks.”

The CVB has definitely been on a wild roller coaster ride since the pandemic gained a stranglehold on the country in March 2020.

The tourism industry basically dried up and had just started to recover this spring before the surge threatened to send the industry back to the dark days.

“We are getting some calls from people who have conventions scheduled,” Kimberlin said. “We’ve had a few small events cancelled. They all had concerns about the coronavirus variant hit.”

The roller coaster comparison also applied to hotel occupancy which had been decimated by the pandemic last summer and fall only to rebound to a record high of 70 percent last month.

“It’s ironic that our hotels came off the worst year they’ve ever had and then they were having the best year they’ve ever had,” Kimberlin said. “They were trying to get ramped up with employees which they’ve had a very difficult time finding staff. And now we’re going through this.”

And this new surge is so threatening that the CVB is waving the white flag for the moment when it comes to one of its main ways of attracting tourists.

“We actually paused our advertising today,” Kimberlin said. “We feel that we need to wait this out for a little bit before we start it back up.

The Chamber, meanwhile, hopes the bad publicity won’t stop the overall economic recovery process.

“As a community we’ve had remarkable resiliency,” Morrow said. “From an economic development perspective we’ve seen one of the best years we’ve ever had in terms of new project announcements, new jobs created and expansion of capital investment throughout the region like construction and other kinds of development that’s good for all of us. That’s continued even through these difficult days of the last year.”

So yes, the latest surge is bringing the Ozarks some unwanted national attention.

“I received an e-mail from a gentlemen from St. Louis who called us ‘stupid’ because of our low vaccination rates here,” Kimberlin said. “That kind of irritated me and I pointed out to him that the vaccination rate in St. Louis city is far lower than Greene County.”

And officials here are hoping that the way we handle this latest surge will change those negative opinions.

“We need to address this because it’s a serious issue in our community,” Morrow said. “The path is through higher vaccination levels. But as we get there I think ultimately, we’re going to have a good story to tell in Springfield and people will continue to come here.”

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