Yellowstone shuts down to limit spread of COVID-19, prevent strain on gateway communities

Park continuing to prepare for spring opening

By CJ Baker and Mark Davis
Posted 3/25/20

Beginning Tuesday and continuing “until further notice,” Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks have been closed to all visitors as part of efforts to curb the spread of …

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Yellowstone shuts down to limit spread of COVID-19, prevent strain on gateway communities

Park continuing to prepare for spring opening


Beginning Tuesday and continuing “until further notice,” Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks have been closed to all visitors as part of efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“There will be no visitor access permitted to either park,” the National Park Service announced Tuesday. State roads that pass through the park will remain open, however, as will “facilities that support life safety and commerce.”

In an interview, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said the decision to temporarily shutter the park was based on more than just containment of the new coronavirus.

“For the most part, everybody felt like this was a good decision in the short term and it helps communities, many of which are worried about visitors overloading their healthcare systems and food supplies,” Sholly said, adding, “I think one of the things we help to alleviate with this temporary closure is to allow for the supplies that are being delivered to these these rural communities to be there for the residents.”

After talking to 50 to 60 people in recent days — from governors to county health officials, commissioners, city managers, mayors and business owners — “it’s pretty hard to find a dissenting opinion,” Sholly said of a temporary shutdown.

The superintendent said the timing was fortunate for the park because most of Yellowstone is already closed, with only the North Gate open at this point. Other gates typically open for the summer in mid-April and early May.

“We'd rather be more aggressive now… with the hope of having a more productive late spring and summer,” Sholly said, stressing that park employees will continue to prepare the park just as they would for a regular opening.

Yellowstone’s primary concessionaire, Xanterra, had announced last week that it was shutting down its in-park lodges, restaurants, campgrounds, tours and other operations until May 22. It’s not clear when the park itself will reopen.

“We are committed to continued close coordination with our state and local partners as we progress through this closure period and are prepared when the timing is right to reopen as quickly and safely as possible,” Sholly and Grand Teton Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail said in a joint statement.

Park County Public Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin had “strongly” urged the closure “to help avoid an increase in COVID-19 in Park County and the other counties that surround the park.”

In a Sunday letter to Sholly, Billin noted that about 500,000 visitors — including many from other countries — pass through Cody each year to travel to Yellowstone, with hundreds of foreign workers taking seasonal jobs in the park.

With COVID-19 now in Wyoming and Park County, “the situation is just ramping up and we have a disastrous situation to look forward to with 2 small critical access hospitals in our county,” Billin wrote. “With a great influx of visitors and seasonal workers, I fear a second spike of COVID-19 once people feel it is getting safe to travel again.”

“Because this disease has no effective treatment and no vaccine, minimizing discretionary travel and aggressive social distancing are the only things that will protect us,” he wrote.

Gov. Mark Gordon expressed similar concern that “if Yellowstone remained open that it would attract visitors from outside the region and potentially spread COVID-19 further,” said his spokesman, Michael Pearlman. “He [Gordon] recognized and shared the concerns expressed by the gateway communities (Cody and Jackson) about the capacity of their healthcare systems to absorb any additional influx of cases.”

Sholly said he received a “substantial number” of requests to close the park beginning late Sunday, including from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and local government leaders.

“... We immediately began conversing with [the] National Park Service and the Department of the Interior to determine the best course of action,” Sholly said Monday night, adding that he was taking the requests “very seriously.” The joint closure announcement with Grand Teton followed on Tuesday.

“The National Park Service listened to the concerns from our local partners and, based on current health guidance, temporarily closed the parks,” Sholly and Noojibail said.

Pearlman said Tuesday that Gov. Gordon “remains hopeful that this closure is only a delayed opening, as he recognizes the economic impact park visitation has on these Wyoming communities and the state as a whole.”

Snow is currently being plowed, but the hiring of seasonal help will be a bit complicated. Between the park and concessionaires, several thousand employees usually start their jobs at the park between April and May, Sholly said. “What we'll probably end up doing is delaying hiring.”

“We'll go through the processes that we need to get job offers to people where possible, but they may not start their jobs on the same date that they thought that they would,” Sholly said. “But it's really important that we continue to have our employees and our team members that are coming on to help us this summer still in the queue.”

Claudia Wade, executive director of the Park County Travel Council, got a call from Sholly before the decision to delay the opening of the park.

“We're going to get through this,” Wade said of the pandemic, “and when we do, people are going to want to be outside.”

“We’re not going to see a lot of international visitors, but I think there will be an awful lot of folks here in the states that are going to be very eager to be out and about,” she said. “Everyone I've talked to said their reservations were looking strong. They all have had some cancellations, but particularly for the month of April and a few into May; nobody is saying they have a lot of June cancellations. So we'll just continue to sit tight and see what develops.”