Stuck at home for months on end, plans canceled and upside down, the Reyes family felt like so many others during this pandemic-blighted summer: “We were just going crazy,” says Ricardo Reyes. “We had to get out.”
They rented an RV, packed daughter and dog, and drove from North Carolina to a getaway they assumed would be quiet. Three days into a trip at Yellowstone National Park, they could see their need to escape was in no way unique.
“I thought it would be kind of dead, but it’s a lot of people out there,” Reyes says, with a nod toward a line of idling vehicles queuing up at the park’s north entrance in Gardiner, Mont. “Lot of people.”
After a slow start to the summer tourism season, visitation is now booming at Yellowstone and many other national parks, as Americans look to escape their coronavirus confines and spend time in the relative safety of the great outdoors. In recent weeks, the number of cars entering Yellowstone has exceeded last year’s count for the same period.
The swell in tourists is a welcome relief in many gateway towns like Gardiner, where the bulk of the year’s earnings are made during the summer months. But it’s tinged with worry that the visitors may bring more than just their pocketbooks, especially in rural communities where medical resources are few and far between.
“It’s a little concerning,” says Terese Petcoff, executive director of Gardiner’s Chamber of Commerce. “We only have a couple more months to make it through, so I think we’re all kind of holding our breath and just hoping community spread doesn’t happen.”
So far, only two people who work in Yellowstone and three visitors have tested positive for COVID-19. But there are concerns that the virus could spread undetected. In Yosemite, local health officials found the coronavirus in the park’s sewage — enough to make them believe that dozens may have been infected — despite no reported cases at the time.
Similar monitoring is ongoing in Yellowstone.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a summer that I want to end as quickly as this one,” says Cam Sholly, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. “There’s not a day that I come to work where I’m [not] fearful of multiple employees testing positive or having symptoms.”
Providing essential services to people who are looking for a summer escape, while also protecting them and park employees, is like “threading a needle,” Sholly says.
After closing to visitors in March because of the pandemic, Yellowstone took a step-by-step approach to reopening. Even now, some campgrounds and facilities remain closed and are expected to stay so through the summer.
Social distancing and masks are strongly encouraged at most national parks. But the National Park Service, in line with the Trump administration’s own waffling over masks, has not made either mandatory.
Bear statues outside of the post office at Yellowstone’s headquarters in Mammoth, Wyo., wear pink masks as a reminder, and signs on the park’s trails and walkways tell people to stay at least 6 feet apart, but compliance is scattershot.
In Gardiner, just north of Yellowstone, masks are compulsory by order of Montana’s governor, Steve Bullock. The mandate, put in place in mid-July, was welcomed by some of the tiny town’s business owners, who were happy to be able to sidestep arguments with customers who weren’t inclined to voluntarily oblige.
“Most visitors have been really understanding,” Petcoff says. “But there’s one in every crowd.”
At Parks Fly Shop, just up the steep banks from the raft-speckled Yellowstone River, store owner Richard Parks gives muted angling advice through a trout-patterned neck gaiter.
At 77 years old, “an official old fud,” as he puts it, Parks knows he’s more vulnerable to COVID-19 than most of the fly fishing guides he hires in his shop. He gets nervous, he says, when someone tries to come in without a mask or when the shop gets packed with people perusing the selection of flies.
But with the slow start to the tourism season and with wife’s bed and breakfast running at half capacity this summer to the point where nobody has to share a bathroom, working in the shop is a risk he’s willing to take.
“This is what we have to live on for a fairly long winter,” he says.
There are many in town, Parks says, who would just as soon not have tourists come at all. There aren’t many confirmed cases in Park County, and they would prefer it stay that way.
Farther north, outside Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet Nation closed off road access to that park’s east entrances out of an abundance of caution. Native Americans are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, in part because of conditions created by chronic underfunding and mismanagement of their health programs.
Tim Davis, chair of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, told Montana Public Radio that he knows the decision will impact the $110 million-a-year tourism industry in Glacier County.
“We’re not, again, doing this based on economics,” he told MTPR. “It’s based on science and health.”
The closures have led to overcrowding and congestion at other parts of Glacier National Park, problems that aren’t new to the coronavirus.
Barring a major outbreak, nobody in or outside Yellowstone National Park expects a similar closure. Some national parks have implemented reservation systems to limit crowd sizes during the pandemic, but the geography of Yellowstone alone, with five entrances, would make it hard to do something similar.
Parks has his own ideas for how to limit crowding. As a fly-fishing guide, he usually gets paid to give advice, but this bit is free:
“Don’t get jammed up in a mob,” he says. “I know Old Faithful is going off, but you can buy a picture. You can’t buy your life back.”