The summer season kicked off with Lake of the Ozarks making national headlines as thousands celebrated the Memorial Day holiday at pools and venues.

The summer season kicked off with Lake of the Ozarks making national headlines as thousands celebrated the Memorial Day holiday at pools and venues. 

The crowds drew national attention as videos and photos of packed pools at bars and restaurants were picked up across the country by news outlets drawing attention to the lack of social distancing. The images have sparked a debate over enforcement. 

The holiday marked the traditional beginning of the summer season. After a slow start due to the statewide stay-at-home order, lake area businesses had just started re-opening. Despite signs and reminders of social distance, the weekend partiers paid no attention. 

The attention prompted a response from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services as well as Camden County Sheriff Tony Helms.

In a statement released in the wake of the national coverage, Helms said social distancing is not a crime. His department has no authority to enforce actions and it is the responsibility of residents and visitors, alike, to take personal responsibility. Their hands are tied when it comes to enforcing social distancing policies. 

Helms said Camden County is a tourism-driven economy and each business owner is working hard to follow the state's guidelines and protect their patrons and staff. Those who frequented the businesses, bars, and restaurants at the lake this weekend made a conscious decision to attend each event and frequent each location.It was the right and responsibility of each individual who made those decisions to access the risks inherent to those decisions.

"This has been a record weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks in the middle of a unique situation. Given the huge influx of people, the Camden County Sheriff's Office has been busy keeping order.It is the responsibility of my office to enforce laws that we have to duly enforce.”

The Department of Health and the State of Missouri have eased restrictions and issued guidelines, which include social distancing. Missouri law gives the authority and responsibility for investigating and enforcing public health violations to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. 

“Social distancing is not a crime and therefore the sheriff's office has no authority to enforce actions in that regard. We expect residents and visitors alike to exhibit personal responsibility when at the lake. We also respect the right of citizens to move freely around the lake and take responsibility to protect themselves from any expected dangers related to COVID 19,” Helms said.”This includes persons who are at risk and their decision to stay out of the public and away from inherent dangers. We need to trust, engage, and empower Missourians to continue health safety measures while adjustments to restrictions are considered and being implemented."

A number of factors can be attributed to the busier than normal holiday weekend, according to CCSD Capt. Chris Twitchel. For weeks, second homeowners have been coming to the lake as stay-at-home orders were implemented in their home communities. That, combined with being within easy driving distance of many larger cities and states where tighter restrictions still exist made Lake of the Ozarks a prime destination for those looking to enjoy the weekend. 

Twitchel said the Camden County Sheriff's Department has been overwhelmed over the weekend, responding to over 150 calls just on Saturday.There's no way the department has enough deputies to enforce social distancing on top of that.

“We’ve had such an influx of people down here, we’re just overwhelmed,” he said. Twitchel said in Camden County alone, not taking into account the other 2 counties that surround the lake, on a typical summer holiday weekend, the population grows from 46,000 residents to more than 300,000.

In Lake Ozark, Mayor Jerry Murawski said while the water bars were drawn into national prominence this weekend, the Bagnell Dam Strip was busy but quiet. All the businesses were open and there were a lot of first time visitors, many from other states that have not eased COVID-19 restrictions.  

Murawski spent several hours on the Strip, visiting with business owners and visitors. He said he saw visitors practicing social distancing in many locations and the businesses were working to comply with the guidelines as much as possible. 

Osage Beach Mayor John Olivarri said it was busy all over. He hopes in the long run the lake area doesn’t experience a spike in COVID-19 cases and he is particularly concerned with the local workforce, but he, like many others, anticipated this would be a busy weekend.

Although DHSS Director Dr. Randall Williams released a statement encouraging social distancing, he did not address the enforcement issue. 

The state health department has reported 38 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Camden,  four in Miller and 8 in Morgan, the 3 counties surrounding the lake.

While the lake area was crowded, as of Monday afternoon, there were no accident fatalities on lake or water reported in Camden, Miller and Morgan counties.