Visitors aren’t pouring into Yellowstone National Park at high levels since the state of Wyoming allowed two of the park's gates to open Monday.
That’s not unusual for the gateway community of Cody, Wyoming, though, according to Claudia Wade, director of the Park County Travel Council. Tourism to the town, located about 45 minutes from Yellowstone’s East Entrance, doesn’t usually pick up until mid-June, she said.
“We hope it kind of builds,” she said, and this Memorial Day weekend should bring in regional visitors, but “no hordes.”
Traffic counts at the two gates — the other is at the South Entrance near Jackson, Wyoming — were about 75% of last year for the first two days, according to Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
“It’s probably pretty representative of day use,” he said.
That’s because right now the park is not allowing camping and has no hotels or cabins open for lodging. There also are no food services available or stores open. So tourists have to be self-sufficient and leave the park at night.
Ensuring people exit hasn’t been much of a problem so far, Sholly said, with only a few RV owners cautioned that they couldn’t camp out in parking areas.
On Tuesday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced he is dropping the 14-day quarantine rule for out-of-state travelers on June 1, which will be a blessing for businesses like fishing outfitters. The so-called Phase 2 of Montana’s reopening process could also include the opening of the three Montana gates to Yellowstone — one each at the gateway communities of West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City.
“There are some things we still need to work out with the state and counties,” Sholly said, “A lot we have addressed or are addressing.”
The park needs to be self-sufficient on testing and surveillance to satisfy Montana, he said.
Although the governor was asked about a limited opening of Montana’s entrances to Yellowstone, Sholly said that doesn’t make sense. The park could cap entrance at a certain number of visitors, but he said that could create more problems for gateway communities as tourists back up into the small towns instead of visiting the park.
The opening can’t come soon enough for Jeannette Mikos, who with her husband owns and operates the Yellowstone Basin Inn outside Gardiner. She said the delay in opening Montana’s North Entrance to the park has cost them $20,000 in business in May due to canceled reservations.
“What we don’t understand is, this is a federal property and they’re not the ones to decide to open it,” Mikos said. “It’s just his own decree.”
On Tuesday Bullock explained his decision saying his staff wanted to make sure that visitors “don’t bring problems from their state to our state,” meaning coronavirus infections. He also said it made sense to see how things worked in the park before the Montana gates were opened.
But Mikos is taking the governor’s decision personally, saying Bullock has taken revenue away from her family as well as other Gardiner-area business owners.
“It’s just been really devastating for all of us,” she said. “I don’t know if Gardiner will turn into a ghost town.”
Even a June 1 opening for Montana’s Yellowstone gates, should it come, isn’t quick enough for Mikos, and she’s skeptical. So she’s contacted her local legislator and U.S. senator seeking help, all to no avail.
For the most part, Sholly said the park’s reopening has gone smoothly considering all of the new considerations in place to prevent spread of COVID-19. About $135,000 in additional funding went to purchase personal protective equipment, additional hand sanitizers and wipes, special disinfect sprayers, face masks, thermometers and $20,000 in signage.
Yet “armchair” critics have taken public swipes at the park staff and its protocols as photos of people without masks gathering at Old Faithful have been published. The “hyperbolic reporting” angered Sholly, specifically a Guardian headline stating “‘Not a mask in sight:’ thousands flock to Yellowstone as park reopens.” The quote came from a National Parks Conservation Association official who had been checking the Old Faithful webcam.
“That’s total bull,” Sholly said. “I didn’t see massive numbers of people in close proximity.”
In past news conferences the park superintendent has put some of the onus of being safe on visitors, encouraging them to take precautions to self-protect and noting that he didn’t expect his staff to be the social-distancing police.
“If people are not comfortable coming to Yellowstone and having a certain number of visitors without masks, they probably shouldn’t come,” he said.
“The more people you put in here, the harder it will be” to keep them 6 feet apart, Sholly added.
The park won’t institute a mask policy for outdoors, but may when it opens its visitor center and other indoor facilities. When stores operated by concessionaires open, he noted, the stores’ staff will be handing out masks to visitors before tourists are allowed to enter.
Until then, the park’s employees will continue to tweak their actions and signage to keep visitors and workers as safe as possible.
“We’ll see how the next couple of weeks go,” Sholly said. “This weekend will be a good test.”
The big test, he noted, will be when Montana opens its gates. Although 90% of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming, about 70% of visitors enter from Montana.
“We’ll be continually adjusting when the Montana gates swing open,” he said. “If we get later into June and things are going well, then we’ll have a conversation about what more we can open.”
Likewise, if things aren’t going well the park could “pull back.”
Photos: Yellowstone re-opens after COVID-19 shutdown
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.