In a display of total sanity amid an alarming COVID outbreak, the organizers of the annual Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in Springfield, Missouri, have voted unanimously to cancel the annual event for a second year.
“With our region’s low vaccination rate against COVID-19, the resulting surge of infections are overwhelming our hospitals and making our community sick,” said Cora Scott, Springfield’s director of public information and civic engagement, in the July 12 announcement. “We feel it is just not safe to bring tens of thousands of people from all over the world to this community for any reason.”
But from July 29 to Aug. 7, there will be a display of total insanity in Springfield.
Bad enough that the Ozark Empire Fair went ahead last year when much of the country was closing down. Things are better elsewhere, but they are worse than ever in this area and yet the fair is doing it again this year. Never mind that the Delta COVID-19 variant is rocking Springfield-Greene County with its highest number of COVID hospitalizations in the pandemic—259 with “severe illness” by Tuesday’s count, more than 90 percent of them unvaccinated.
The city of Springfield is a partner in the Route 66 festival, but has no vote in the doings of the Ozark Empire Fair.
And the nine-day event draws tens of thousands of people from Springfield and the surrounding counties. Organizers are seeking to boost attendance with a logo that notes this is Missouri’s bicentennial as a state.
“Summer’s Biggest Party,” it promises.
A retired Springfield 911 supervisor named Bill Blevins put it another way in a Facebook post.
“Be sure and get in on the Covid-19 Super Spreader event of the summer! Ride the Ventilator!”
Meanwhile, the trajectory of new cases suggests the hospitalizations will continue to rise past the present record.
“We have not plateaued,” Scott told The Daily Beast. “It’s a testament to the power of disinformation.”
Despite convincing 1,000 more people to get the shot this past week, with a campaign involving pastors, firefighters, and community advocates going door to door, the vaccination rate in Springfield is still just 40 percent; the rate for those under 20 is only 17 percent.
In nearby Douglas County, the vaccination rate for all ages is only 16 percent. Ozark County has just 20 percent, and Tansey is 28 percent.
Based on those numbers, the overall rate for the Ozark Empire Fair will almost certainly be considerably less than half, meaning that thousands of fairgoers will be susceptible to contracting COVID and possibly developing severe illness under conditions that foster the spread of the virus.
The fair’s organizers have insisted that it will observe the CDC recommended protocols, including social distancing and face coverings. But local health officials remain concerned about any large gathering.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, acting Springfield-Greene County health director Katie Towns did not respond directly to a query from The Daily Beast regarding the fair. But a spokesman confirmed that her response covered any such events—including the fair—when she was asked about the Light the Way Christian music concert at the Greene County border this coming weekend.
“We’ve all been in this for a year and a half and I think that we all know the rules of the game at this point, and so the virus preys on people who are unvaccinated and who are in close contact with one another,” Towns said. “I think the fear is that disease is bad right now and our department is overwhelmed, the hospitals are overwhelmed.”
She went on, “We’re concerned that there will be more disease to come and especially with things that bring people close together that the virus will definitely be transmitted in situations like that.”
The management of the Ozark Empire Fair did not reply to a request for comment regarding its COVID precautions.
But as a native of the “Show Me State,” Blevins, the retired 911 supervisor, is not convinced that those who attend the fair will keep on masks once they get past the entrance.
“I highly doubt it—if they wear them at all,” he said.
Blevins got vaccinated back in March but learned firsthand two weeks ago that even the shot does not offer complete protection against the Delta variant. He began to suffer symptoms on the Fourth of July and grew considerably worse the next day.
“By then, I was literally shaking because I was having seizures,” he recalled. “I just sat there and shook... That’s all you can do.”
He went to the doctor the next day and arrived to see his best friend being wheeled out to an ambulance.
“I didn’t see that coming,” he later said.
The friend had not gotten the shot, saying the vaccine was too experimental. She was on the way to the hospital with COVID as he continued on into the doctor’s office to get tested.
“They said, ‘Yeah, you got it,’” he recalled.
He also gave it to his wife, who had gotten her first shot a day before he was diagnosed—too late to build up any appreciable protection. She escaped being hospitalized but was even sicker than he became.
“By God I was sick,” he said. “That was a rough ride, but it was short.”
He is certain his illness would have been even more severe were it not for the shot. And at 60 years old with a history of heart and kidney ailments, he figures he would not likely have shared the good luck of his wife and best friend in being on the way to a full recovery.
“You and I wouldn’t be talking,” he told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “It should have killed me. That vaccine saved my ass.”
Too many others are refusing to stay safe as COVID keeps spreading, spreading, spreading in his hometown.
“Here, it’s kind of like New York was,” Blevins said. “It’s everywhere. Anybody down here not vaccinated will get it.”
He has attended the Ozark Empire Fair many times in previous years. He made a prediction regarding this one.
“There are going to be some cases coming out of that fair,” he said. “I guarantee it.”
Attendance might be a touch less than expected, as the biggest music draw, Loverboy, has canceled.
“They can’t get out of Canada,” Blevins correctly noted.
One of three regional fill-in bands is called Sequel Dose.
Sequel Dose could put its name to good use if it used the gig as an opportunity to urge young people to become fully vaccinated.
As it is in Springfield-Greene County, a majority of the cases are people under 40. Infections are up more than 64 percent among those 23 to 30 and more than 51 percent among those 18 to 22.
“We have to stop thinking that this disease is only impacting those who are older or unhealthy, especially now that the variant is proving just the opposite,” Towns told the press. “Our hospitals are seeing more and more young people being admitted to critical care with COVID-19. And sadly, today we reported the death of a 26-year-old who died at home.”
Towns cited the most compelling reason everybody should do their part in this variant-driven stage of the pandemic.
“I think it is all our duty to remember that children don’t have the option to be vaccinated,” she said. “And therefore, if you’re concerned about helping to keep them safe, it is the right thing to do to go ahead and be vaccinated so that we all can do everything we can to keep our most vulnerable population right now protected from this virus.”
The under-20 age group is nearly as vulnerable with its present 17 percent vaccinated rate. A posting on the Ozark Empire Fair’s Facebook page offers them short-term employment opportunities when the gates open next week.
“Want to make a little money before school starts? The Ozark Empire Fair Concessions department is looking for help!”