Reece Moorehouse recently graduated from Jackson Hole High School but he didn’t celebrate at graduation parties.
But he knows some of his classmates and co-workers who did. During a Teton County Board of Health meeting July 28, health officials called upon 20- to 29-year-olds — the age group that accounts for the largest number of coronavirus cases in Jackson — to “change their behavior.”
Public health officials said they worried that young, seasonal workers socializing after work were fueling community spread of COVID-19 in Jackson Hole.
“Some of these younger people, who are frequently employed at restaurants, are perhaps gathering in groups after hours,” Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said at the Board of Health meeting.
According to the Teton County Emergency Management COVID response dashboard, people in their 20s account for nearly 35% of local coronavirus cases, making them the most infected age group.
When the novel coronavirus first made its way into the valley in March, Moorehouse expected everything to blow over in a matter of weeks. But the virus hit close to home when his sister tested positive for COVID-19 in May.
“It’s still around,” he said. “So yeah, I’m definitely taking it more seriously now.”
Moorehouse also lives with his parents, who have health conditions that could make them more high risk if they were to contract COVID-19.
“I want to see my family and not get them sick,” Moorehouse said.
Unlike Moorehouse, most of his friends aren’t worried about contracting COVID-19 because they are young and in good health.
“It’s a lot of parties and hanging with friends,” he said. “The partiers make it risky for everyone.”
Recent coronavirus infections in the valley are largely pinned on college-aged, seasonal workers from every corner of the country. While some, like Moorehouse, are self-isolating whenever possible, others are taking advantage of Jackson’s parks while they can. That social movement could be part of why 135 of the 20- to 29-year-olds in Teton County have tested positive for coronavirus.
Ben Belden “used to be” worried about coronavirus — that is, before he came to Jackson and felt removed from the threat of COVID-19. As soon as Alabama’s caseload began to rise, Belden fled for the hills.
“Corona wasn’t that bad out here, so I decided to come,” Belden said.
With hopes for a normal summer, Belden didn’t let coronavirus stop him from having a social experience in Jackson, securing jobs at the Mangy Moose and Teton Pines. Did he let his guard down when he landed in Jackson?
“I guess you can say that,” Belden said.
Despite the midsummer increase in Teton County’s caseload, Belden isn’t worried about contracting COVID-19. But he usually limits his social interactions to small group activities outside.
Moorehouse said he thinks his coworkers at the Granary Restaurant have handled the public health situation as well as possible because they “want to be open as long as possible and are still trying to make money.”
Belden noted that the Mangy Moose, like all restaurants open for dine-in customers, was strict about employees wearing gloves and masks above their noses. The Granary also asked its employees to limit socializing outside of shifts.
“Sometimes we’ve caught each other not wearing masks and just trying to be friendly — because that’s how it usually is,” Moorehouse said. “It’s obviously better to talk to someone face-to-face rather than behind a mask.”
But young, seasonal workers aren’t the only coronavirus spreaders. In the face of an unrelenting pandemic, the valley saw a record-high tourism season: It is estimated that 36,000 to 44,000 people were visiting Jackson each day around mid-July.
On Tuesday, Yellowstone National Park reported 955,645 recreation visits in July, a 2% increase from July 2019. Even so, Yellowstone reported that out of 1,378 surveillance tests of asymptomatic employees, all have come back negative. Two Yellowstone concession employees who tested positive for COVID-19 in July have recovered. The park sharply curtailed its seasonal workforce to about 2,000 employees and quarantines employees who have symptoms, according to park officials.
Despite public support of masks, not all visitors to Teton County, where a countywide mask order is in place, have been keen on donning a face covering. What’s more, Will Nowak, co-owner of The Bird and Eleanor’s, said that he “can’t guarantee that the customers are social-distancing in their personal lives.”
Health officials have said it’s unclear whether the virus is traveling from customers to service workers or vice versa.
“I think people were very upset with the tourists, but it is not our intent to blame any one group,” Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond said at the July Board of Health meeting.
As fall approaches, seasonal workers and tourists will eventually flee town. With Teton County quieting down, Teton County public health officials are banking on a subsequent decrease in COVID-19 cases. But with the school season coming up, health officials are also crafting a more aggressive coronavirus response.
“Our caseload will improve in October and November,” Pond said. “And then this is going to be a problem again in December, when the next batch of young 20-something-year-olds come to work in our service sector…. That will hit us.”
While the Health Department blamed young people’s lack of social distancing for fueling a summer spike in cases, Moorehouse and teenagers living with parents while working in the valley have largely stayed home, indicating that the younger population’s response to coronavirus is far from monolithic.
After a summer spent without much regard for COVID-19, Belden’s return to the East Coast is marred with uncertainty.
“When I go back to college in Alabama,” Belden said, “I’m kind of expecting to get it.”