With Most Restrictions Lifted, Kansas City's First Large Event Hints At A Post-Pandemic Summer
A balloon glow Sunday at the World War I Museum and Memorial not only ushered in Memorial Day, it offered a glimpse into life after COVID restrictions.
As singer Emma Jo set up for a performance Sunday on the north lawn of the World War I Museum and Memorial, one of bandmates said to her, “You didn’t tell us it was going to be this many people.”
While Emma Jo and the Wild Division prepared for their set, the crowds streaming onto the grounds grew to unexpected numbers — there to witness a balloon glow and revel in one of Kansas City’s first opportunities for large-scale festivities since lifting most COVID-19 restrictions.
Mayor Quinton Lucas ended many of the city’s health orders on April 26, with the exception of wearing masks for indoor gatherings where social distancing is not possible.
In their place, Kansas City is now following CDC guidelines that say anyone who has been fully vaccinated may resume most normal, pre-pandemic activities. Individual businesses, however, may still impose restrictions on customers and employees.
Under grey skies with no rain, thousands of people roamed the museum grounds, freely moving between the hot air balloons, vendors, food trucks and music offerings.
Attendees predominantly went maskless, and that was fine with Joe Clark. He sat next to his buddy Ed McCoy — both men are military veterans — enjoying the crowd and some beverages from a cooler nestled between their chairs.
“It’s good to see that we don’t have to wear masks again,” Clark said. “Life is almost coming back to normal.”
“It’s just amazing the number of people here,” McCoy added. “I like to watch people, but it will be great when the balloons go up.”
Rochele Bateman owns Jack’s Old Fashioned Kettlecorn, along with her husband, Daniel. Set up not far from McCoy and Clark, the stand enjoyed a clear view of four balloons filling with helium.
They were also deluged with customers. Bateman said they had to send an employee for more supplies an hour and a half into the evening, because they realized the crowd was growing faster than they anticipated.
“I think a big part of it was, Kansas City loves to support their small businesses,” she said. “COVID kind of taught us that we all need to kind of stick together through all of this.”
Bateman said they sold out of popcorn at 9:40 p.m., but was elated by the crowd nevertheless. “We kept up and we were in good spirits,” she said.
Keenan O'Brien, owner and operator of The Waffler food truck, also struggled to keep up with the pace.
"I experienced organized chaos at its finest," O'Brien said. "We haven't been able to do an event like that in nearly 18 months."
He blamed the "melancholy morose of being stranded inside" for the sea of hungry festival-goers.
O'Brien said he rationed his supply of waffles, chicken and ice cream as best he could. But around 9 p.m., O'Brien had to stand on his truck, using a traffic cone as a megaphone, to announce he was out of food.
O'Brien added that people stayed in line anyways, many not knowing which food truck they were in line for.
"People were so excited to get out," he said. "They were just ready to stand in the line and figure out in a quarter mile what they were even waiting for."
Emma Jo attributed the crowd size to Kansas City residents simply being ready to go out and do something – after more than a year of having nothing to look forward to.
In fact, the massive crowd on the museum's north lawn formed the largest audience her band had ever played for.
“To be in front of thousands and thousands of people, it was completely surreal in the best way possible,” Emma Jo said.