Yellowstone National Park set to reopen — but with caveats

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Yellowstone National Park begins a phased reopening Monday, with the park's Wyoming entrances slated to open for day use only.
Yellowstone National Park begins a phased reopening Monday, with the park's Wyoming entrances slated to open for day use only.
Kirk Siegler | NPR

Billed as the oldest operating hotel in West Yellowstone, Mont., the Madison is a short hop from the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. With its original pine log siding and thick wood beams, the historic hotel sits on a street squeezed with camera stores and trinket shops hawking Old Faithful t-shirts, wooden grizzly bears carved by chain saws and paintings of the iconic Yellowstone Falls.

Normally these sidewalks beneath the old western facade would be humming with tourists. But obviously nothing about anything we're living through is normal.

"It's really disheartening; there is no one here," says Garrett Ostler, owner of the Madison. "You could shoot a bullet in any direction and not have to worry."

There's been growing pressure from business owners in gateway towns like this to reopen America's most popular national parks, even as many states still have travel restrictions and continue to see rising cases of coronavirus.

Yellowstone, the country's first national park and one of its most popular, will begin a phased reopening Monday when the gates come down at its Wyoming entrances only. The park closed March 24, largely at the request of local officials in towns and states surrounding the park.

‘Sunrise’ reopening

Yellowstone is an especially complicated case. The park touches three states, all with a mix travel restrictions and rates of coronavirus infections alongside a patchwork of local health districts with different enforcement rules. Most of the towns are small and lack health care infrastructure and could be overwhelmed by an influx of cases. Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park draw visitors from around the country and world.

"There's a point in time where the stressors of economics start to override the fear of the virus with some people," says Cameron Sholly, the Yellowstone superintendent.

Sholly is ushering through what's being billed as a "sunrise" reopening. Initially it will be barebones; day use only using Wyoming entrances with few if any services available. At a to-be-determined future date, some campgrounds and other businesses in the park will be allowed to reopen, as well as its three Montana entrances. Of the four million annual visitors to Yellowstone, almost three-fourths of them tend to pass through the Montana gateway towns.

Garrett Ostler, owner of the historic Madison Hotel in West Yellowstone, Mont., has hired about half his normal summer staff. Reservations are cratering.
Garrett Ostler, owner of the historic Madison Hotel in West Yellowstone, Mont., has hired about half his normal summer staff. Reservations are cratering.
Kirk Siegler | NPR

Garrett Ostler at the Madison is frustrated that an official date hasn't been set on his side of the park.

"There are people who have been hunkered down for eight weeks and are ready for some healing and normalcy," he says. "Yellowstone brings that."

His bookings for June are at barely 15 percent of normal, and reservations later in the summer are cratering amid all the uncertainty.

Ostler says he's put the steps in place to protect his guests from the virus. But even he isn't sure how you regulate social distancing in one of the nation's most crowded national parks.

"People really struggle with staying 50 feet away from a bison, let alone six feet from each other," Ostler says. "We're social critters."

Crowd management

Yellowstone's highways and its boardwalk paths atop boiling geothermal pools can be infamously clogged with tourists. On road shoulders, it's not uncommon to see crowds of amateur photographers with tripods trained on bison or bears or moose. And then there's Old Faithful, which on a warm summer day can be more crowded amusement park than pristine geyser.

"I don't pretend to say that I can disperse every crowd and (that) every picture you're going to see out of Yellowstone and Old Faithful is going to be people standing six feet apart," Superintendent Sholly said.

Park officials say they've figured out how to manage and regulate crowds in indoor spaces. But the outdoors are going to take serious cooperation with the public. This is a big reason why parks like this aren't just turning on all the lights and inviting everyone back in at once. Yellowstone's initial plans are designed to evolve and change with the science. Other large parks that have begun phased reopening, such as Grand Canyon in Arizona and Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, have adopted similar strategies.

The Trump administration and its Department of Interior appears to be leaving it up to individual park superintendents to make decisions about how and when to reopen.

"No one is putting economics over health," Sholly says. "But is there a balance we can strike where we can start to reopen safely, get some of the economy rolling again, but not so far so fast that we can't pull back if it doesn't work out."

Melissa Alder, co-owner of Freeheel and Wheel in West Yellowstone, is worried that the park reopening could bring a spike in coronavirus cases.
Melissa Alder, co-owner of Freeheel and Wheel in West Yellowstone, is worried that the park reopening could bring a spike in coronavirus cases.
Kirk Siegler | NPR

Ready or not, here they come

For every business owner pressuring him to reopen quickly, Sholly says he's gotten just as much pressure from others urging him to stay closed longer. The resort areas west of the park in Gallatin County, Mont., had been a coronavirus hot spot. In Montana and Idaho, technically all nonessential out of state travelers are supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days on arrival.

It's not really being enforced, which makes some locals like Melissa Alder nervous.

She co-owns Freeheel and Wheel, an outdoor store and coffee bar in West Yellowstone.

"We are fearful of the congregation of people that will come," Alder says. "I don't think we're ready."

Alder got money from the federal CARES Act to help her ride through for a few more weeks, mostly so she can keep paying her employees. They began a soft reopening themselves recently, mostly delivering coffees to customers out on the sidewalk and doing bike repairs by appointment.

Alder says she'd rather the park stay closed than reopen too soon, only to have to shut down in the actual summer high season if there was a second wave of cases.

The usually humming streets of West Yellowstone at the park's main western entrance are deserted.
The usually humming streets of West Yellowstone at the park's main western entrance are deserted.
Kirk Siegler | NPR

"We don't have a hospital, we don't even have a doctor full time here in West Yellowstone," Alder says. The nearest hospital is more than an hour's drive away in Big Sky, Mont., or Rexburg, Idaho.

Despite the park closure, Alder has been spotting out-of-state plates arriving in town and hearing second homeowners talking in the grocery store about traveling to Montana to ride out the pandemic. Just the other day, West Yellowstone reported its first coronavirus cases, believed to have been traced to a family visiting from out of state.

One evening on the otherwise deserted Yellowstone Avenue, tourist Donny Santee said he drove west from his home in Iowa thinking the park would have reopened by now.

"I think America needs to get out," he said. "If you think that the bug is something to worry about, keep locking these people up then you'll have a problem you ain't never seen."

Clutching plastic shopping bags full of gifts he said he bought to support local businesses, Santee praised Trump for pushing to reopen national parks. He said people know to protect themselves from the virus.

"If you get rid of individualism, then you get rid of America," Santee says. "That's what this is really about."

That ethos says it all about the challenges facing many institutions here in America, under pressure to reopen even if it's not yet known whether doing that is safe.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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