‘What’s Covid?’ Why People at America’s Hardest-Partying Lake Are Not About to Get Vaccinated
At the Lake of the Ozarks, vaccines are shunned, masks are mocked and the long-term consequences take a back seat to the time at hand.
OSAGE BEACH, Mo.—The petite blonde bartender in ripped jean shorts bounced to each side of a square-shaped bar as women in bikinis and shirtless men lined up on a sweltering afternoon to order Bud Light, vodka and soda, and piles of nachos at this dockside retreat in the Lake of the Ozarks region.
In a county designated a Covid hot spot, in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, and in a region where hospitals are nearing capacity as the Delta variant takes hold, Erin, a bartender at Backwater Jack’s, couldn’t be in a more vulnerable position. She interacts closely with hundreds of maskless customers—sometimes on a single day. She knows most of them are probably not vaccinated. And she doesn’t care. She isn’t either.
“I’m living, breathing proof—I’ve not been sick once. I’ve been as hands-on as you can be with people from everywhere,” Erin said, as a motorboat thundered to the dock and another group of customers climbed out. Like others who spoke for this article, she asked to go only by her first name. She said she’d heard a rumor—common among vaccine skeptics but also plainly false—that “more people are dying from getting the vaccine this week.”
“Personally,” Erin added, “I feel like my immune system is doing a good job, so why pump it full of something that we don’t really know what it is?”
A year ago, Backwater Jack’s made national news after photos went viral of partiers packed inside the pool area, ignoring guidelines to avoid crowds and keep a distance from others. Today, as revelers laugh and toss back drinks in shallow pool water, some 600,000 deaths later, they aren’t just forgoing masks, they are forgoing the vaccine.
Talk of the vaccine draws scoffs, laughs and even cussing among the clientele. Mask-wearing, which is recommended for those not vaccinated, was virtually non-existent—and, in conversations with a flow of customers over two days, it’s clear that many are not vaccinated.
Depending on your politics, the scene at Backwater Jack’s is either a symbol of reckless abandon or unapologetic living in the face of a pandemic. It is one pole of the divide that has erupted across the country, which increasingly seems cloven into two Americas: vaxxed and unvaxxed. In the Lake of the Ozarks region, where Missourians and out-of-staters pour in to boat, fish, sunbathe and party, to be unvaxxed is a source of identity and—at times—pride, a totem of one’s independence and politics.
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