‘You wonder what’s next’: Tourism leaders reflect on shortages, safety protocols
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a four-part series on the effects in Eureka Springs of the ongoing COVID-19 surge.>
Kenn Woodard opened Wild Boar Axe House this past May, hoping to give Eureka Springs residents something to do on their day off. By August, the axe-throwing attraction was forced to shut down for 10 days. That’s because someone who visited the facility tested positive for COVID-19, Woodard said.
“We had to make a responsible decision just to be sure everyone was safe,” Woodard said. “We opened back up on Friday (Aug. 20), and we’ve got new protocols including a temperature machine. We’re going to ease back into this.”
Woodard said all his employees are required to wear masks. They happily give masks to visitors who don’t have one, Woodard said.
“We separate out now and we don’t operate at full capacity,” Woodard said. “We’re still doing our league, but we’ll vary the times people come in so everyone isn’t here all at once.”
Wild Boar Axe House isn’t the only business increasing its safety protocols in the wake of the COVID-19 surge. The Crescent and Basin Park hotels returned to COVID-19 protocol on July 19, requiring everyone to wear masks in any indoor area with 10 or more people who gather for more than 15 minutes.
In a press release, the hotel stated that it would re-evaluate the protocols in August. Jack Moyer, general manager and executive vice president of the hotels, said last week the protocols are still in place and will be for an undetermined period of time.
“We haven’t restricted attendance yet, but all of our in-house team is masked and we don’t see that changing within the next 30 days,” Moyer said. “The Delta variant is common in Carroll County, which is why we’re continuing to use protocols.”
Moyer said it’s not always easy for employees to get visitors to wear a mask.
“It’s been a little aggressive, and that’s not really what hospitality professionals signed up for,” Moyer said. “We want to be friendly and helpful.”
Gotahold Brewing reinstated its mask policy in July. Even with the staff being 100 percent vaccinated, co-owner Wendy Hartmann said, it was necessary to return to wearing masks indoors.
“I wish this would be done, but it’s not, so we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” Hartmann said.
Randy Wolfinbarger, who owns Best Western Inn of the Ozarks, said he hasn’t changed safety protocols over the past few months. That’s because his employees never stopped wearing masks, Wolfinbarger said. He has kept the popular salad bar at Myrtie Mae’s restaurant closed, despite receiving frequent calls from patrons asking if it’s open again.
“It’s exposing yourself too much by opening the food lines like that, and I know many restaurants in Northwest Arkansas have opened up buffets,” Wolfinbarger said. “But we think it’s not worth the revenue. I’d rather have the revenue loss than risk someone getting sick.”
As tourism has spiked in Eureka Springs, Wolfinbarger said, he’s dealt with several supply shortages. Some supplies are available, he said, but much more expensive than normal.
“Mainly, there’s been some food shortages and beef prices got so expensive there for a while,” Wolfinbarger.
Wolfinbarger said the hotel replaces a certain number of mattresses every year, and that’s been difficult this year.
“They’re on a shortage right now because they can’t get foam to stuff the mattresses,” Wolfinbarger said. “And then terrycloth for the towels … we have particular towels we use for all Best Western brands, and they’re on a shortage.”
Moyer said he’s seen serious supply shortages, too.
“It’s inconsistent. One day, we’ll be out of chicken and the next day, we can’t get a maintenance supply,” Moyer said. “The supply chain has been very inconsistent, definitely the most inconsistent year ever.”
At Bean Me Up Creekside, co-owners Greg Caveney and Bobby Clayborn had a hard time finding to-go cups for a while. Caveney said that’s the first time he’s seen such a shortage.
“It’s an eye opener about being stocked up,” Caveney said. “A lot of places are running out of things no one ever thought to stock up on. You wonder what’s next.”
A number of Eureka Springs business owners reported another type of shortage, the kind you can’t replace so easily. It’s been extremely difficult to find employees, said Autumn Slane, co-owner of Sauced Barbecue.
“They can be on unemployment until they find a job,” Slane said. “We’ve seen people come in for the interview so they can have proof they’re trying to apply but then never showing up for the actual job.”
Moyer said employment shortages are an “endemic problem.”
“We’re pleased to hold our staff, but we’re not at 100 percent staffing,” Moyer said. “The pandemic has diminished the number of people that have started a career in hospitality.”
As the virus surges, tourism has followed suit. Tom Rask, who runs EurekaSprings.com, said his website traffic was up by 51 percent last week. The motels along the highway aren’t back to where they were before the pandemic, Rask said, but some of the bigger properties are doing really well.
Damon Henke, who runs Ozark Mountain Vacation Rentals, said he’s seen an increase in bookings over the summer.
“We also see an increase in cancellations, but the net effect is still an increase in tourism,” Henke said. “For those who cancel, there are others who are willing to travel.”
Caveney said he’s seen a different kind of visitor over the past year.
“We’ve had a lot of people from nearby cities in Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas who have never been here before,” Caveney said. “We had a whole wave of new visitors. People are trying to get out of the cities and do something.”
Slane said the outdoor opportunities in Eureka Springs are a major reason for increased tourism.
“Eureka is known as an outdoor center,” Slane said. “All those people come here as a refuge. That puts us in a situation where we need to protect our citizens and our visitors.”
As the major industry in Eureka Springs, tourism is certainly important. But Woodard said it’s not as important as the public health of the community. The way he sees it, Woodard said, tourists want to come to a city that values health and safety.
“You have to put the health of people first,” Woodard said. “It was a tough decision to shut down, but it was the only decision for us.”
Wolfinbarger said hospitality employees have learned a lot about adapting over the past year and a half.
“You never know from day to day what’s going to happen,” Wolfinbarger said. “We need the tourism, but we also have to take care of our people.”