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Vaccine Tourism Is an Economic Boon for Some Towns

For Quincy, Illinois, hosting a mass-vaccination site is helping revive what had been, pre-pandemic, a strong tourism industry. The city of 40,000, about five hours from Chicago, typically hosts all sorts of visitors in a normal year: road-trippers following the national scenic byway along the Mississippi River, Abraham Lincoln enthusiasts mapping the 16th president’s travels (he and Stephen Douglas held a debate in the city in 1858), and Mormons tracing their faith’s westward migration. When the virus hit, many of these guests stopped coming to town, causing hotel tax revenues to plunge by more than 30 percent and dealing a blow to the city’s restaurant scene. But since the Quincy mass-vaccination site opened to all of Illinois in March, the city has drawn more than 2,000 tourists each week from outside the region, many from the Chicago area. “It’s definitely something that we’re encouraged by,” Holly Cain, the director of the Quincy Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, told me.

The tourists seem to be helping reverse some of the city’s economic losses. Teri Zanger, the general manager of the local Quality Inn, told me the hotel had laid off employees at the beginning of the pandemic, but now vaccine tourists have increased bookings by roughly 25 percent, filling every available room. The hotel is now in the process of hiring again. Lindsey Schmidt, a staffer at Winkings Market, said that the restaurant and grocery store was also seeing a surge in out-of-town customers. The boost has been so significant that the store seems to be doing better business now than it was before the pandemic. “If you know the restaurant industry, you know the winters are tough. Everything drops down,” Schmidt told me. “But we’ve been having a summer in the winter.”

These places can all use the additional dollars. Over the past four decades, wealth in America has flowed to a handful of already-rich metropolitan areas, leaving other parts of the country behind. Quincy’s population has declined since 1970, and, as in Plattsburgh and Habersham, its median income is below the national average. In some cities hosting mass-vaccination sites, such as Kennewick, Washington, business leaders told me they aren’t aware of any economic benefits. Regardless, economics isn’t everything: If the boost in commerce was coming at the expense of locals getting their shots, that would be a bad trade-off.

But while lots of rural Americans, particularly in areas without pharmacies, are genuinely struggling to get jabbed, there haven’t been any clear downsides to vaccine tourism for some communities. The share of vaccinated residents in the counties including and surrounding Plattsburgh exceeds the statewide average. Adams County, home to Quincy, has the highest percentage of fully inoculated residents of any county in Illinois. Three of the four neighboring counties also have an above-average share. “It’s been a win-win for us,” Kyle Moore, Quincy’s mayor, told me. “We know that the state can get back on its feet quicker the more people who are vaccinated, and if we can play a part in that, we’re happy to do it.”

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