SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn — In Sevier County, January is the slowest time of year. Business in the area tends to dry up once Dollywood and other seasonal attractions close.
At least, that's how it has been for the past decade that Steve Ramage has owned creameries and cookie shops around town.
"It's normally so slow I go home crying," Ramage said. "Especially during the week, there could be days where you don't make $100."
Usually, Ramage would begin reducing his employees' hours or laying some of them off, but so far, things haven't slowed down.
"It has taken us completely by surprise," Ramage said. "This is our tenth winter [working in Sevier County] and it's by far been our busiest."
Ramage said he's thankful for the business but being cautious because of the pandemic. His shops require masks, have plastic barriers and plenty of places for hand sanitizer.
"We have hundreds of people coming through the door every day from everywhere," he said. "You don't want anybody getting sick."
Christopher and Amanda Hampton clean cabin rentals across Sevier County. Business hasn't slowed down for them either.
"It's looking like it's just as steady as it was right before Thanksgiving," Christopher said. "Normally, we're on unemployment. Instead, we have the opportunity to keep working. That's a first and a blessing in disguise."
Data from the National Park Service showed recreational visits to the Great Smoky Mountains are rapidly increasing. In November 2020, nearly 1.1 million people visited the park — a 28.2 percent increase from November 2019.
"We're open and nobody else is and it's within driving distance of so many states," Sevier County resident Winter Starkey said. "We do want you here. We rely on tourism heavily, but during a pandemic, it may not be the best idea."
Starkey said there are plenty of options for socially distant activities, like scenic drives or hikes or getting takeout. She said she and the people she's worked with in these "touristy" areas just want people to be respectful when they come.
"If you have to be around people, we do ask that you wear a mask over your nose and mouth," Starkey said. "I mean, our hotels are full. Soon our hospitals will be."
Sevier County has a mask mandate in place through Feb. 27.