Yellowstone National Park is gathering input from gateway communities, governors and federal agencies to develop a gradual reopening plan.
The 4 million visitors who come to Yellowstone each year are the economic pulse for small towns dotting the park’s border. But this summer, instead of welcoming them with open arms, communities are grappling with how to receive them amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s complicated,” says Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly.
Sholly has been hosting calls with nearby towns and user groups asking for input on when and how the park should reopen.On a Tuesday call with business owners and community leaders from Montana gateway towns, Sholly said planning could get complicated if the three states or five counties the park straddles have different social-distancing regulations.He said the park’s plan will also depend on whether COVID-19 cases ramp up or slow down during the typically busy summer season.
“We've been closed for a month now, and in some ways, we're fortunate that the closure came at a point in time where we would normally not have a lot of visitation,” Sholly says.
Yellowstone has been closed ever since March 25th after neighboring county and state officials expressed concern that visitors could bring the novel coronavirus to communities with limited medical services. But as stay at home orders and directives to close non-essential services near their expiration dates, communities are trying to figure out how to prepare.
“The majority of people that I’ve talked to are wanting the park to stay closed for April and even into May to some degree. But there are businesses and people questioning when that timing is going to be; what it’s going to look like, and those are really good questions,” Sholly says.
A caller asked if Yellowstone is considering ways to control the number of people who enter the park. Sholly said they’re not planning on capping visitation, but they could stagger the opening of facilities and reduce the number of campsite and hotel rooms available. He said employee housing is also a challenge.
“In Yellowstone, we house the Park Service and our partners, somewhere between 3500 to 4500 seasonal employees every year. A lot of those employees live in shared housing,” Sholly says.
He said Yellowstone and concessionaires have paused the majority of their seasonal hiring for now and are working to ensure the employees who do come don’t have to share their living space with other people. Crews are still clearing roads of snow and some of the large infrastructure projects will continue, including the $30 million road revamp between Tower Fall and Chittenden Road.
“That’s a section of road that really needs work. This actually could turn out to be a great summer to have that work done,” Sholly says.
He said contractors are required to provide information on how workers will be housed, transported and managed at the project site to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Outfitters and tour groups will likely also need to develop plans outlining how they would adjust operations to keep people safe from the novel coronavirus.Sholly said there’s still a lot of “what ifs”.
“How do we protect our employees? How do we successfully manage 11,000 people on a boardwalk at Old Faithful every day, and there are a lot of variations with what the accommodations look like in the park, food service, gas stations,” Sholly says.
Sholly said it may take a while, but we’ll get through this.