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Here Are 3 Places To Go If Your Kansas City Staycation Isn’t Cutting It

The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which stretches across the Missouri River, is one of the most popular attractions in Omaha, Nebraska.
Eric Francis
Visit Omaha
The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which stretches across the Missouri River, is one of the most popular attractions in Omaha, Nebraska.

With less than a half-day drive, you can get out of Kansas City and do it relatively safely, even in the middle of a pandemic.

With summer travel season here, many people in Kansas City are thinking about getting away for a few days after a long, stressful spring. This year, choosing a vacation destination is not just a simple matter of taste but also of weighing the risks of infection.

The first rule for taking a vacation? Avoid crowds

The Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri is one of the most popular destinations for travelers from Kansas City, but over Memorial Day weekend, it became a national poster child for irresponsible behavior during the pandemic.

“What happened at Lake of the Ozarks is exactly what we do not want to see as we're reopening state,” says Dr. Mary Ann Jackson, dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s medical school.

A video circulated on social media that showed hundreds of people at a pool party without masks while hanging out and talking close together. Jackson says that kind of behavior hits most of the high-risk factors for spreading coronavirus.

“Think of it as proximity, activity and time,” says Jackson, “And so the highest risk is if you're very close to somebody indoors for an extended period of time.”

The Memorial Day weekend pool parties weren’t indoors, but the crowds troubled Kansas City and St. Louis health officials. They urged anyone attending the pool parties to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Still, a trip to the Lake of the Ozarks can be a safe vacation spot if you avoid crowds and go somewhere secluded like a lake house.

There’s no evidence that pools or hot tubs spread the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The chemicals in pool water should inactivate the virus, but even taking a dip in the lake isn’t a big concern as long as swimmers are staying at least 6 feet away from each other.

Branson, Missouri

Branson’s specialty is bringing busloads of generally older people to pack big indoor theaters running music variety shows, but it’s a tourism model that is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The city bills itself as the “Live Entertainment Capital of the World,” but most of the 9 million visitors in an average year drive less than half a day to get there.

Branson gets more than half a million visits from greater Kansas City in a typical year, according to Lynn Berry, communications director for the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau. Many of the other visitors come from Oklahoma, Arkansas and other parts of Missouri.

Of course, this is not a typical year. Taney County, where Branson is located, has had two deaths from COVID-19 but only 13 cases overall. Despite not seeing a widespread outbreak, the pandemic is hurting the city’s economy.

Berry says most of the 10,000 people who worked in Branson earlier this year are now unemployed. Branson only has about 11,630 residents.

A handful of Branson’s three dozen theaters have re-opened, and many of them will be staging shows again by mid-June with voluntary social distancing guidelines developed by a citizen board.

Still, Berry says many Branson theater owners have deep incentives to play it safe.

“Many of our theaters in Branson have families on stage and families that have run that theater for three generations,” says Berry. “And so taking that into account will be a part of each and every day. They have to protect the livelihood of their families.”

Branson has diversified its entertainment base in recent years, including outdoor attractions. Of course, there are amphitheaters but also a variety of amusement parks, zip lines, hikes and nearby lakes catering to a growing mix of younger visitors.

Northwest Arkansas

Arkansas lives up to its official nickname of “The Natural State.” Hazel Hernandez, director of marketing for Experience Fayetteville, says there’s plenty to do in the area without inhaling other people’s germs.

“We have a lot of outdoor amenities, a lot of lakes. The Buffalo National River is only an hour away from us. We have some great trails, great mountain biking, great road cycling,” boasts Hernandez. “So I think outdoors is what's driving traffic right now and tourism.”

Northwest Arkansas has become a mountain biking mecca with hundreds of miles of some of the finest trails in the United States. Hernandez says the trails are a little busier than normal, and she’s noticed lots of Missouri license plates on cars parked at the trailheads.

Arkansas hotels have re-opened after being closed to out-of-state visitors for nearly a month. However, if you work up a thirst or an appetite on the trails, you’ll probably have to take it to go. Hernandez says many restaurants, bars, breweries and shops in Fayetteville are either closed or open only for curbside pickup.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, is the region’s other major draw but remains closed.

Omaha, Nebraska

If you’re looking to go north and hang out with upper Midwesterners, Omaha is less than a three-hour drive from Kansas City. Deborah Ward with Visit Omaha says the city attracted more than 185,000 Kansas City-area visitors last year. In fact, no city visits Omaha more than Kansas City does.

“When we look at our top seven feeder markets, Kansas City is number one,” says Ward. Des Moines, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Sioux Falls and St. Louis round out the list.

Nearly a quarter of visitors from Kansas City stop at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, which has mostly re-opened with a strict one-way path through the exhibits.

The Old Market neighborhood, filled with boutique shops, bars, hotels, breweries and eateries. That’s the second most popular destination for Kansas Citians in Omaha. Ward notes that the city’s bars and restaurants are operating at half capacity.

The third most popular destination in Omaha is a sweeping, 3000-foot suspension bridge stretching over the Missouri River to Iowa — perfect for a socially distanced stroll. The pedestrian bridge is named after for former Nebraska Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, but it’s more affectionately known as “Bob the Bridge.”

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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