Yellowstone National Park’s east and south gates, both located in Wyoming, will swing open at noon Monday, but for now the park is keeping its three Montana gates closed.
Timing for the phased plan for Grand Teton National Park mirrors that of Yellowstone, with a Monday reopening date.
“What I’m going to announce is out of the box,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a phone call with regional business leaders Wednesday. “It’s different. It’s not exactly going to be incredibly popular with some of you.”
Wyoming has lifted out-of-state travel restrictions and requested that the state’s entrances be opened next week. Montana and Idaho are different, with out-of-state restrictions still in place, and conversations for reopening the three remaining entrances are ongoing, Sholly said.
Jackson and Cody will be guinea pigs to see what happens to gateway communities as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s tourism economy reboots after seven weeks mostly offline. The reason has been the COVID-19 crisis, which has had disparate effects around the region: Park County, Wyoming, for example, has had a single positive (and now recovered) case, whereas Gallatin County, Montana, has had 149 confirmed cases.
Reopening each park will involve three phases, with day use only and very few services at the onset.
The reopening plan in Yellowstone is initially restricted to the lower driving loop, which includes Lake, Canyon, Norris, Old Faithful, West Thumb and Grant Village. Restrooms, self-service gas stations, trails and boardwalks will be accessible, but that’s about it.
Teton Park Road, Moose-Wilson Road and North Park Road will all open in Teton park, as will the pathways, some bathrooms, scenic vistas and hiking trails.
The Colter Bay convenience store and gas station are scheduled to open by the end of next week.
Riverbank and lakeshore fishing will be available to the public early on, but boat ramps for now will be a no-no because the National Park Service doesn’t yet have the personnel to staff aquatic invasive species check stations, Grand Teton acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail said during the call.
Even after summer operations have fully ramped up, services in the parks will not be what they normally are because of coronavirus-related housing orders that are severely restricting staffing. Places like Jackson and Jenny Lake lodges and the Old Faithful Inn won’t open in 2020 as a result. Yellowstone and its concessionaires are bringing on only about 25% of their normal 4,000-person seasonal workforce, and some of the 1,000 workers who will come won’t arrive until later in the summer, Sholly said.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon called the Park Service’s reopening plan “cautious.” In the weeks before, the governor asked Sholly and Noojibail to initiate reopening. That request was vetted by Teton and Park counties, whose commissioners concurred.
“It is our belief in walking through this that this was a good, prudent first step emphasizing safety and traffic control,” Gordon said in a press conference Wednesday. “I do believe that this will allow for an initial, restrictive and thoughtful flow [of people].”
Still, the governor admitted he has some anxieties about opening the tourism floodgate. The two national parks’ summertime visitor load of about 4 million people is roughly eight times the population of Wyoming. At least in the early going, while the Montana gates are closed, many road-trippers who would otherwise flow into Yellowstone via Gardiner and West Yellowstone will instead enter through Jackson and Cody.
Typically, Sholly pointed out, 70% of Yellowstone visitation is people passing through the Montana gates.
“There’s a little bit of trepidation, I will say, all the way through these communities,” Gordon said. “There are some that are very excited. Businesses are opening again. Others are very concerned what this means, hence my reason for saying we’ve got to be responsible and thoughtful about our fellow citizens.”
Gateway community businesses, including restaurants, now have more latitude to serve the coming tide of visitors. Gordon has begun rolling back statewide health orders regulating how businesses can operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Restaurants can now offer indoor and outdoor dining service so long as they follow specific guidelines like keeping tables 6 feet apart, increasing sanitation measures and requiring staff to wear face coverings.
Movie theaters and performance venues — concert halls, theaters and the like — will be allowed to reopen, so long as 6 feet of distance is maintained between groups at all times.
Gyms, child care centers, hair and nail salons, and other businesses that have already been allowed to reopen now have new sets of rules.
Gyms, for example, will be able to open locker rooms and offer group classes for up to 25 people so long as distance can be maintained between participants.
Earlier in the pandemic Teton County fought for a stricter stay-at-home order than the rest of the state, and the county recently requested a variance to keep some business closed longer than the state. Officials aren’t sure how they will act this time.
“Over the next two days I will evaluate the new state orders, consider our current disease metrics, and make a determination about the need for any variances,” Teton District Health Officer Travis Riddell wrote in an email.
It’s tough to say how many tourists Yellowstone and Grand Teton will attract in the early season.
“I would prefer that it’s not just a light switch,” Sholly said, “and we get inundated, overwhelmed and not be able to handle it.”
One key date in the start of the summer tourism season — Memorial Day weekend — falls five days after reopening. But Sholly noted that it’s still early and that May is typically a much quieter month than any time from June through September.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopened last weekend after a six-week closure, and reportedly attracted crowds of visitors. Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn told The Associated Press that she counted license plates from 24 states in one visitor center parking lot at the park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
“It seemed like people were not respecting our suggestion that they avoid crowded areas,” Soehn told the AP.
Few people wore masks, she said.
Both Wyoming parks are adopting “mitigation actions” aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus. They plan to bring on more seasonal custodians to bolster efforts to disinfect high-use areas, and add Plexiglas panels to separate visitors from entrance station and visitor center staff. The use of masks or facial coverings in high-density areas will be encouraged, but not required. In some instances, Yellowstone may meter visitor access in certain locations or use barricades.
During the first phase, no large commercial tour buses will be allowed in either park.
The second phase of reopening in Yellowstone will bring campgrounds, the backcountry, visitor cabins, stores, takeout food services, boating and fishing, and eventually visitor centers, back online.
“Those facilities will open, when safe, over a period of time,” Sholly said.
Dates have not been announced, but Sholly anticipated staying at a phase one/two level of operation “well into June.”
Phase three will be the new normal mode of operation in the parks, and all bets are off as to when that will kick in. The timing will be influenced by how the limited operations go, he said.
Grand Teton National Park’s phased reopening plans mostly mirror Yellowstone’s, Noojibail said in the call. The unscheduled second phase will include opening some campgrounds, cabins, more convenience stores, takeout food services, river and lake access, boating and limited visitor centers.
Backcountry permits won’t be available until then, Noojibail said.
The Park Service will defer to the states to determine when gates at Gardiner, West Yellowstone and Cooke City, Montana, reopen. Yellowstone’s superintendent said he thinks they’re “not too far behind,” but he did not take a guess as to a specific date.
“Once I receive a letter recommending opening from [Montana] Gov. [Steve] Bullock,” Sholly said, “I will set the dates for reopening of the Montana gates.”
— Billy Arnold contributed to this story.
Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or firstname.lastname@example.org.