In a normal year, more than 4 million people flock to Yellowstone National Park, half of them during the summer months. They fill visitor centers, gift shops and lodges, which are staffed by thousands of workers who come from all over the world and live within the park. And they pack boardwalks to gaze at Old Faithful, one of the world’s largest predictable erupting geysers, and Grand Prismatic, a widely recognizable neon blue, yellow and orange hot spring.
America’s first national park features more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails and some 300 backcountry campsites, but it is those magnificent geological features that draw most visitors, creating bottlenecks that can be an annoyance in peak season. But this year, as parks open back up amid a still-unfolding pandemic, they present serious risks.
“How do we successfully manage 11,000 people on a boardwalk at Old Faithful every day?” Cameron Sholly, Yellowstone’s superintendent, asked during an April 21 conference call. At that point, it was a hypothetical. This week, Yellowstone partially reopened for the first time since March. Pictures quickly surfaced of crowds of out-of-state visitors gathered in close proximity. Memorial Day weekend is typically the start to summer, which means it will only get tougher.
Mike Keller, general manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges, estimated only 10 to 15 of the approximately 140 visitors he observed at Old Faithful at one point on Thursday morning were wearing protective masks. The cold and rain kept bigger crowds at bay that day, but the three-day holiday weekend is expected to draw scores of visitors to Yellowstone and other national parks.
It’s the kind of situation that advocacy groups like the National Parks Conservation Association hoped to avoid, urging the Trump administration to close parks and not reopen them until it could guarantee the safety of visitors and staff.
“We get it, people feel like they want to be outside,” said Kristen Brengel, NPCA’s vice president of government affairs. “But we want to make sure they are safe.” The reality, she added, is that national parks draw big crowds and many sites have staffing shortages because the pandemic kept them from hiring seasonal rangers. That means fewer people to manage and disperse large crowds.
“I just want to make sure everyone knows what they are getting themselves into,” she said.
Slow To Close, Quick To Reopen
The Interior Department, the parent agency of the National Park Service, has faced backlash for its handling of parks during the COVID-19 crisis, much as it did during the 2018-19 government shutdown. In early March, as cases of COVID-19 began to balloon in the U.S. and private businesses were forced to close their doors, the agency resisted shuttering national parks and monuments. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt joined Trump in downplaying the coronavirus threat, telling staff in a pair of memos that “this virus is NOT currently spreading widely in the United States” and “Americans don’t need to change their day-to-day lives but should stay informed and practice good hygiene.”
It wasn’t until mid-March that Interior gave park superintendents the authority to modify and suspend operations as they saw necessary to address COVID-19. Local officials responded by quickly closing dozens of sites around the country, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Yosemite. For the majority of parks that remained open, many with limited operations, NPS waived entrance fees ― a move it said supported social distancing outdoors but that sent visitors flocking to iconic parks like Grand Canyon and Zion, forcing additional closures.
Late last month, as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 approached 50,000, Trump signaled that Americans would soon be able to enjoy America’s parks again. “We will have them open quickly,” he said during an April 22 Earth Day speech.
In recent weeks, Bernhardt has toured a number of park sites as they’ve ramped up operations and taken to Twitter and radio interviews to assure the public that the administration is working rapidly to expand access.
Yet it wasn’t until this week, days before the busy Memorial Day weekend, that park managers received guidance from Interior on resuming operations, managing crowds and promoting social distancing, according to internal documents HuffPost obtained. Those guidelines indicate parks will rely heavily on signage at entry points and heavy traffic sites about the importance of complying with social distancing guidelines. Parks employees should encourage visitors to adhere to those recommendations, but are not authorized to enforce wearing masks, the guidance says.
One NPS ranger who requested anonymity to speak candidly told HuffPost he feels the administration is moving dangerously fast and is “extremely worried” that parks could become ground zero for a surge in new cases. The park he works at has a small stockpile of personal protective equipment, but he estimated it would run out in two weeks once the site fully reopens.
“I feel like I’m going to get it eventually,” he said of COVID-19. “I just don’t feel there is any way for me to avoid it.”
As a law enforcement officer, the ranger is concerned about visitors refusing to wear face coverings and practice social distancing, and that employees encouraging people to follow health and safety guidelines will be met with hostility.
“I don’t want to become the mask police,” he said.
And if there is an outbreak of cases at parks or visitor numbers become unmanageable, he’s not confident that local officials will have the leeway to shut things down without Interior intervening. One case of COVID-19 could force a park’s entire law enforcement arm into quarantine.
“It seems to me like the openings and closings of parks is based on politics and not the safety of employees and visitors,” the ranger said.
Interior says its phased reopening will prioritize health and safety and be guided by states’ plans to begin reopening businesses and lift stay-at-home orders. But health experts have warned that many states have not met benchmarks that would allow them to safely ease restrictions. Earlier this month, an influential model nearly doubled its projected U.S. death toll from COVID-19, from 74,000 by early August to more than 134,000, in response to states relaxing social distancing requirements. As of Friday, the number of confirmed deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19 was over 95,000.
In a Friday letter, House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) urged Interior and NPS “to exercise extreme caution” in reopening sites and requested documents related to the agencies’ plans.
“I recognize the benefits of reopening national parks and other public land sites when appropriate,” Grijalva wrote. “But rushing to reopen national parks prematurely and in the absence of stringent safeguards threatens public health and puts lives in jeopardy.”
An NPS spokesperson told HuffPost that “America’s public lands belong to the American people” and it is following guidance from the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local health officials to maintain access to park sites.
“The health and safety of those who visit and work in national parks continues to be paramount, which is why we ask visitors to be our partner in adopting social distancing practices,” the spokesperson wrote.
‘We Will Ask Them To Leave’
Along with NPS staff, the parks’ seasonal contractors continue to face enormous uncertainty.
Yellowstone National Park Lodges typically has more than 2,200 rooms available for tourism during summer months, but it had to reduce that to 550 in order to properly adhere to social distancing guidelines. That has meant a workforce reduction of approximately 66%.
The company that runs the lodges notes on its website that seasonal workers are expected to observe community safety standards. Gatherings in common areas are prohibited. Residences are to be cleaned and disinfected multiple times a day. Hiking is only allowed on certain trails.
“Everyone has a social responsibility to ensure that they’re taking actions and behaviors to guarantee their safety and the safety of others,” Keller said. “That’s why as a company, we’re saying we’re wearing masks.”
Lodge and restaurant buildings will also have screens placed at checkout stations, animal prints six feet apart where lines are expected to form and elaborate signage reminding guests to partake in social distancing, Keller explained. The lodge system manager said he isn’t surprised to see park visitors congregating in large groups at popular observation sites, as the public response has been the same in most newly reopened tourist attractions.
“At the same time, if customers come into our indoor areas and they’re not social distancing or behaving responsibly, we will ask them to leave the building or change their behavior so they’re in compliance with what’s expected of them,” Keller said.
The few employees who live in the park throughout the offseason are already experiencing the new normal of distancing in employee residences. Several workers left the park when it closed, but some had no choice as Yellowstone is their primary or only residence.
Davon Fulton, a sous chef from Brooklyn, New York, who is in his fourth season working in a Yellowstone lodge kitchen, remained in employee housing for about two months even though he had been furloughed. He didn’t consider leaving the park.
“They allowed us to stay in the dorm and fed us for free until they reopened. I didn’t want to go back to New York,” Fulton explained. “I’m not really worried about coronavirus. I’m just happy to get back to work.”
Several lodges will remain shut entirely due to social distancing limitations that arise with shared bathrooms and common areas, and most employee housing has been deemed unusable for the same reason. In a normal season, there may be up to three employees in bunk beds sleeping in one room.
The social experience that comes with dorm living is usually a highlight for park workers ― “summer camp for adults,” as some put it. This year will look a lot different. For now, housing is limited to one resident per room. The employee pub isn’t open, the dining room is now takeout only and group recreation activities, from kickball tournaments to talent shows, have all been canceled.
Ravaged By COVID-19, Navajo Nation Braces For Park Tourism
It’s not just park workers who are anxious about what reopening will look like. A number of neighboring communities, including some that depend on seasonal park recreation, have also voiced concerns about how to handle an influx of tourists.
In Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park, one of the most-visited parks in the U.S. with nearly 6 million visitors in 2019, reopened in a limited capacity last weekend. It will partially open again Memorial Day weekend. The Navajo Nation, the largest and most populous American Indian reservation, borders the park on the east, and has been a hot spot for the virus, with more than 4,200 confirmed cases on the reservation and at least 100 deaths.
Last week, the reservation surpassed all 50 U.S. states’ in its per capita infection rate. This is in part due to Navajo Nation’s impressive testing apparatus, which has conducted tests on over 27,000 residents, or 13.2% of residents. By comparison, New York state has reported testing about 5.2% of its population.
Navajo officials worry tourists driving through the reservation to get to the Grand Canyon could unintentionally spread the virus or contract it along the way. Though Grand Canyon National Park’s website advises visitors traveling through Navajo Nation to wear masks and abide by social distancing guidelines, it does not mention the reservation’s stay-at-home order and weekend curfews.
Navajo President Jonathan Nez said local police saw an influx of visitors traveling through the reservation last weekend.
“If you disobey the curfew, if you disobey the public health orders, you will be held accountable,” he told HuffPost. Navajo police may hand out $1,000 citations to those flouting the coronavirus orders, he added.
Nez said he called on Bernhardt during a meeting Wednesday to keep the park closed until the infection rate decreases more dramatically. Bernhardt refused, Nez said.
“My assumption is he’s getting considerable pressure to open the United States of America from his boss,” Nez said, referring to President Donald Trump.
“The economy is getting hit hard,” he continued. “But for us, our focus is on the health and well-being of the Navajo Nation.”
Asked about the Navajo Nation’s request, an Interior spokesperson said Bernhardt “had a productive discussion with President Nez on several important matters, and the Department will continue to collaborate with him on many issues, including Grand Canyon National Park.”
While it will likely be months before the national park system as a whole returns to any semblance of normalcy, additional parks are slated to start welcoming back visitors in the coming weeks. Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is set to begin a phased reopening on May 27, while Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah will begin May 29. Others, like Glacier National Park in Montana and Death Valley National Park in California, have not set reopening dates.
Keller, 50, has lived and worked in Yellowstone ― a crown jewel of the park system ― for 35 years. He has seen it withstand catastrophic wildfires in the 1980s, the rise and fall of hotels and millions of tourists come and experience everything that the park has to offer.
“It’s a place that’s very special to me and I love being here,” he said. “The park will survive this too.”
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