‘How in the heck are we this busy this early?’: Okoboji sees large crowds ahead of holiday surge

By: - July 2, 2021 2:25 pm

Overcrowding was an issue last year at the Iowa Great Lakes. Shown is Miller’s Bay on West Okoboji Lake on July 4, 2020. (Photo courtesy of David Thoreson).

American travel is expected to surge back to almost-normal levels for the Fourth of July holiday, but businesses in Iowa’s popular Iowa Great Lakes area say crowds have already returned in force.

“Every business up here was doing Fourth of July numbers on Memorial Day weekend,” said Matt Richter, part of the family-owned The Three Sons clothing shop and the mayor pro tem for Arnolds Park. 

Usually, Richter said, business will “warm up” through May and June, getting gradually faster until the “all-out sprint” through July and August. This year, it’s been full sprint the whole time, with weekends through June matching July expectations.

“You get together with a couple other business owners, business managers, and you’re looking at each other going, ‘How in the heck are we this busy this early?’” he said. 

Travel nationally is expected to surge back to almost pre-pandemic levels this weekend. Travel organization AAA predicts 47.7 million Americans will travel for the holiday, making it the second-highest volume of travelers ever recorded. They predict 2021 will be dwarfed only by 2019, when 48.9 million Americans traveled by car or by plane for July 4th.

In Okoboji, Richter and other business leaders expect the Fourth of July crowds will exceed 2019 numbers. Director of Tourism Rebecca Peters estimated crowds this weekend could be 30% to 40% larger than the same weekend last year, and 5% larger than the holiday in 2019.

“We anticipate seeing a lot of families gathering together again who maybe haven’t seen each other in a year, year and a half, being able to come back together and celebrate the Fourth of July as a family,” she said.

Richter anticipates 120,000 people in town this weekend, significantly more than a normal summer crowd of 80,000 or 90,000. 

“We have no idea what to expect, in a positive manner, for the next six, seven weeks,” Richter said.

Business is likewise booming at Okoboji’s Parks Marina, a complex of restaurants, bars and boat rentals. Trevor Johnson, who does marketing for the marina, said he was “kinda scared” about how busy the holiday weekend would be.

“About every weekend so far this summer it’s almost been close to Fourth of July numbers,” he said. “It’s been a great summer.”

Businesses urge patience during employee shortage

As businesses prepare for crowds to descend on the Iowa Great Lakes, just one problem remains: finding enough staff to bartend, wait tables, sell clothes and more. Both Johnson and Richter said their businesses were shorter-staffed than usual heading into the holiday weekend. 

Business owners across Iowa have struggled to find employees in recent months, prompting early closures, higher wages and the end of additional unemployment benefits. 

Richter said applications had not noticeably increased since mid-June, when Gov. Kim Reynolds ended Iowa’s participation in additional federal unemployment benefits. There’s just not enough people.

“Everybody that can work is working. I don’t know anybody that’s capable of working that’s staying home,” Richter said. “But the attitude here is, the thought of taking unemployment is literally shameful in this area.”

Peters noted that the area had struggled with employment since before COVID-19 struck and that most businesses were experienced at adapting. Still, she urged visitors to be patient, both with understaffed businesses and with crowds.  

“I think the key for this weekend is just to be safe and to have a little patience and to have grace with people,” she said. “Just be kind to everyone you see.”

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.