Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks announced plans to partially reopen in phases starting on May 18, after a seven week closure due to COVID-19.
Starting Monday at noon, visitors will be allowed to enter Yellowstone National Park through its southern and eastern Wyoming gates. They’ll be limited to the lower loop of the park, which includes Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake and Hayden Valley.
Public restrooms, self-service gas stations, medical clinics, trails and boardwalks will be open. But overnight lodging, food service and visitor centers will remain closed.
While Wyoming recently lifted a 14-day self-quarantine order for out-of-state visitors and requested Yellowstone reopen, Montana has not.
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said during a conference call Wednesday that the park's three Montana entrances will remain closed for now. Around 70 percent of Yellowstone’s visitors pass through Gardiner, West Yellowstone and Cooke City.
“We want to be sure and have good confidence that before we open all five entrances at once, and to my point just now, that’s 3 million people that travel into the Montana gateways, into the Montana entrances, that we are prepared to do so," Sholly said.
Sholly said waiting to open Yellowstone’s busiest gates will help the park test the waters rather than open the flood gates.
Visitors typically spend over $1 billion annually in communities within a 60 mile radius of both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, mostly from June through September.
“We still have some of the best months in fron of us. Let’s figure out how to safely and conservatively not put ourselves in a position where we’re putting July, August or September in jeopardy because we’re making the wrong decision now," Sholly said.
He said the staggered reopening of Yellowstone’s entrances will give staff more time to prepare and modify protocols before the peak season. Employees will wear masks and install protective barriers where appropriate, increase sanitation protocols and limit the number of people in buildings.
Sholly said the Park Service and the concessionaires that operate in Yellowstone will only hire 25 percent of its normal seasonal workforce this year to reduce the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.
He said he’s working with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to determine when would be an appropriate reopening of the entrances.
Bullock said in a separate press call Wednesday that wouldn’t happen until June first at the earliest.
“While our economy certainly relies upon and we appreciate our visitors, we also want to ensure that those visitors don’t bring problems, meaning their infections, from their home states to our state," Bullock said.
Under phase two of Yellowstone’s reopening plan, campgrounds, backcountry permits, visitor cabins, additional stores, small outfitters and guides, takeout food service, boating, fishing and visitor centers will start to resume operations.
Hotels, full-service dining, commercial tour buses and ranger programs won’t start up again until phase three.
Superintendent Sholly says moving into phase three will depend on when the states and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lift restrictions on large gatherings and when public health officials say it’s safe to use shared housing for seasonal employees.
Grand Teton National Park’s primary roads will be open Monday (Teton Park Road, Moose-Wilson Road and North Park Road) as well as public restrooms and a gas station. Recreational activities, including day-use hiking on seasonally-accessible trails, biking and fishing, and some approved tours will be allowed during phase one of Grand Teton’s reopening plan.
Like Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park will not allow overnight lodging or food service and visitor centers will remain closed.
Yellowstone National Park's reopening plan is available online.