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Townsend tubing opens with pandemic precautions

Smoky Mountain River Rat opened its summer season Friday with added precautions it said reduces the risk of spreading coronavirus.

TOWNSEND, Tenn. — Townsend roads and waterways were saturated Friday with the familiar sight of yellow buses and yellow floats as Smoky Mountain River Rat opened tubing season on the Little River.

The tubing company normally begins its season May 1.  A couple of weeks delay for COVID-19 did not impact the business too much due to the unusually cool spring weather.

"Holding off until May 15 was a good call because it was a little chilly. But we wanted to see how other businesses went about reopening," said Jennifer Duerer, general manager of Smoky Mountain River Rat.

Mother Nature provided summer-like weather Friday with highs in the mid-80s. The tubing company is doing what it can to heat up business while calming concerns about the coronavirus.

Credit: WBIR
A family tubes down Little River in Townsend.

First, the company is not piling as many people into its buses.

"We have a lot more shuttles on the road than we normally would for low-volume. The shuttles are limited to nine passengers and the driver. We have hand sanitizer everywhere and we sanitize the shuttles after every trip," said Duerer.

Duerer said the company received many questions from customers on social media. The added safety measures were approved by the Tennessee Paddle Sports Association to reduce contact between customers and employees.

"When people get here, we have 'Rat Radio.' When you pull into the parking lot, signs prompt you to tune in to the radio station. We're trying to give you as much of the speech we'd give you inside [the business] in the comfort of your car.  We are booking online. That's probably the best thing you can do because that just limits the contact with any staff members. That allows you to do any kind of money transaction in your car and again you can sign the waivers," said Duerer.

Credit: WBIR
Rat Radio sign at Smoky Mountain River Rat provides instructions to tubers in Townsend without face-to-face contact.

When it comes to cleaning the inflatable tubes, Duerer said the best disinfectant comes from above.

"The sunshine pretty much sanitizes your tubes. Your [ultraviolet]," said Duerer.

The reaction from people who live along the river was mixed.  Some told us they are slightly concerned about people traveling across the country and floating along their property.  Others said they are not concerned. And then there were people who said they already disliked tubing before the pandemic.

For Duerer, she is glad to have some sense of normalcy.

Credit: WBIR
Smoky Mountain River Rat tubing company in Townsend.

"We have procedures in place to keep you as safe as possible if you are going to come out.  Fresh air and the sunlight are a good thing.  It's bringing the world back to normal that people can go out, have a summertime, have vacations, and still stay safe," said Duerer.

This year brings additional safety measures unrelated to COVID-19.  All tubers, including adults, must have life jackets with them while on the river. Only children are required to wear them while tubing.

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