I visited the Smokies in the summer of 2020, this is my experience


The streets of Gatlinburg are still often crowded, same as it ever was (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

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As we drove through Pigeon Forge on Saturday, a line from an old favorite song kept coming back to me.

Same as it ever was. 

The line is from the song Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads.  

I never knew what that song was about. I still don’t. 

But I always like the poetry of it. 

Despite the year 2020 and everything it brought with it — despite going into the second or third month of a mask mandate, despite the recommendations of many, life moves on apace in the Smokies of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. 

Same as it ever was. 

Aerial view of Pigeon Forge (stock photo)

The Pigeon Forge traffic

As Saturday afternoon bled into Saturday evening, the rows of cars coming into Pigeon Forge stretched back into Sevierville, maybe not as far as a typical Saturday night at the end of summer, but plenty far enough to frustrate drivers trying to get somewhere, anywhere on the main strip. 

The shopping outlet parking lot was heavy with cars as we pulled in, trying to sneak to The Disney Store at the back to let the kids get a toy.

“This is like Black Friday,” I thought as we pulled in, though that turned out not to be true. There were plenty of empty spaces to the back of the outlets, but there were still masses of shoppers milling through the stores and the restaurants. 

A gaggle of young girls – at least, young to me – stumbled in laughter at some shared joke as the jaywalked across the road to get from Ben & Jerry’s to another store.  

The streets of Gatlinburg were much the same. Large groups of people enjoying the relatively mild August day, walking through the shops and snatching up snacks and tchotchkes and the assorted fare that has sustained the Gatlinburg economy for the last 60-odd years.

Same as it ever was. 

Still, despite the echoes of an 80s rock band, some things were different. 

The rules, mandates and enforcements during unprecedented times

Face masks were prevalent, or they were prevalent depending on your expectations.

A cynic, expecting low levels of compliance with the mandate, might have been surprised at just how many were wearing their masks.

Read Also: Amid controversy, Sevier County extends mask mandate again through Sept 30 

An optimist, on the other hand, might have been disappointed at how few were willing to do as they were asked and risk some level of discomfort in the name of public safety. 

A pragmatist, like me and David Byrne, probably would have figured the number was just about right. 

There’s no realistic way to measure how all the attractions and businesses are abiding by the rules, mandates, guidelines, hopes and dreams we’re all supposed to follow. 

Guests check in for reservations outside Ole Red Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)
Guests check in for reservations outside Ole Red Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Read Also: What’s going on this month at Gatlinburg’s Ole Red (plus bonus recipe!)

Examples of places that enforced mandates

I can tell you the Hard Rock Café – hey I’m Gen X with an affection for Boomer music – took temperatures and mandated masks until you sat down at your table and enforced social distancing guidelines pretty well. 

The Disney store at the outlet also carefully kept count of how many people were in the store and had a line outside with markers to delineate proper social distancing even if a few of the people in line struggled with the concept. 

It was all a little weird and a little normal at the same time, like a Ray Bradbury story just before it takes off and really leans into the science fiction, and you find out you’re actually reading about life on Mars or Venus or something like that. 

I know a lot of people with strong feelings about wearing masks or not wearing masks — about public safety and tyranny and all these big issues. I spent a lot of time just observing. 

Read Also: Dollywood revises Splash Country mask policy, will have mask-free zones 

Some folks try, while some folks don’t

I saw some people throwing caution to the wind. No mask. No distancing. No cares in the world. 

One of these guys slid behind me in line at the Hard Rock as I stood trying to get my temperature taken. Unwilling to risk letting his pulled pork nachos cool, he impatiently squeezed between me and the partition and went to join his already seated group. 

I briefly considered a hip check but decided to be magnanimous and later eviscerate him anonymously on the internet. These streets can be mean, buddy. Don’t mess with me. 

I saw others, determined to be out in the world, but trying to do so safely. They moved away when others invaded their space. They dutifully stood where the markers told them too. They wore their masks. 

They tried.

Somebody asked me for my assessment of life in Sevier County during the summer of COVID 2020. I guess the best way I could explain it is this: I got about what I expected. 

Same as it ever was. 

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at info@thesmokies.com for questions or comments.


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