BRANSON, Mo. — From crowded theaters to crowded amusement parks to crowded restaurants, Branson is a town built on volume, and that could be a liability in the age of coronavirus.
“Our business has never experienced anything even close to this,” said Sheila Dutton, as she stood in the now empty Dutton Family Theater.
The theater is a Branson musical mainstay that’s been in operation more than 20 years. The entertainers are mostly all Duttons, including children and grandchildren. The lights went out on March 23, the day Missouri ordered all non-essential businesses to close.
Missouri’s entertainment capital was suddenly shuttered.
It’s a situation Craig Wescott never thought he’d have to deal with. Wescott, whose father co-founded the Track Family Fun Parks more than 30 years ago, has seen tough times, including a tornado that tore through Branson in 2012.
But COVID-19 is proving a far greater danger because of all the unknowns.
Even when Branson is allowed to reopen, will the public feel safe enough to return?
“We’ve drawn out various scenarios on opening day and the further away it is from now the uglier they are,” Wescott said.
Even businesses based far from Branson are feeling the fear.
“All of our Branson tours for the spring are completely done. Every single one of them was cancelled,” said Marc Lambert, owner of Senior Excursions.
Lambert’s company is based in Wildwood, New Jersey, but 20% of his business involves bus trips to Branson. His customers, nearly all who are over the age of 70, are staying home. He doesn’t know when they will come back.
“Our number one fear is the fall,” Lambert said. “Our follow up fear is spring of next year. I’m very concerned because everyone is predicting a resurgence of this virus even if we get it under control.”
Jeff Seifried, president of the Branson Lakes Chamber of Commerce, knows that letting people know they’ll be safe in Branson is a priority.
“But at some point we can’t stay closed for the remainder of the year or there won’t be any businesses left to open,” Seifried said.
The Chamber estimates that Branson attracts nine million visitors a year who pump an estimated $3.5 billion into the economy.
Seifried said the businesses that will bounce back the quickest once the town reopens are those that are already working on plans to keep their employees and customers safe.
Track Family Fun Parks management has been holding regular meetings to determine how their business operations need to change to protect people, including running half the go karts at a time while the other are being cleaned.
“It is all over the board from cleaning solutions, to controlling flow, to do we need to limit capacity on the roads that we never have before to the business side?” Wescott said.
The Dutton family is considering initially limiting the number of tickets sold to its 900-seat theater.
“We might have an audience of 50,” said Sheila Dutton, which would allow people to sit farther apart.
While the Duttons are waiting for Branson to reopen, they’ve started holding virtual live performances every Thursday at 7 p.m., on their YouTube channel.
The creative concerts have allowed them to keep on singing and connecting with an audience they hope will one day soon return.