CODY— Now fewer than two weeks away from the originally scheduled opening, there is still no estimate as to when officials would open Yellowstone National Park’s east gate, or any part of the park.
“Let’s not look at this call as (we know) what all the answers are for the future,” park superintendent Cam Sholly told listeners during a conference call Monday.
In a nearly two-hour long conference call, Sholly gave scant new details as to what the opening will look like, but did say the park will generally follow health orders put in place in communities and states surrounding it.
“When restrictions start lifting, we can start asking when communities are ready to have an influx of transient visitors,” Sholly said. “One thing we don’t want is to get overwhelmed and pull it back.”
He also said a gradual opening of services is likely to occur, with a limited number of seasonal employees to start, in lieu of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
This “wave one,” as Sholly described it, would offer limited services to the public and single occupancy housing for 160-170 seasonal employees, a much smaller amount than the typical 450-500 seasonal employees in the Park each summer. Included in this batch would be 40-60 employees living in local communities. The focus of this initial staff would be to staff “front-country” facilities like entrance gates, essential medical offices and bathrooms.
A “wave two” would later introduce shared living quarters by an increased number of employees.
Historically, the East Entrance has been the third gate to open, behind the West Entrance in West Yellowstone, Mont., and the road from Mammoth Hot Springs, which is accessed year-round from Montana at the North Entrance in Gardiner, Mont. This year, the East Entrance was scheduled to open May 1, while the West and North entrances were set for April 17. The South Entrance, which directly accesses Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, was to open May 8.
Staggered openings occur largely because of snow and weather conditions. Sholly said crews have been plowing as scheduled.
Linda Veress, public information specialist for YNP, said depending on when the Park opens, all gates may open simultaneously, “if it is reasonable to do so.”
Cody and the Big Horn Basin have significantly fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 than most of the communities near the other gates. Gallatin County, home to the West Entrance, has 145 cases (141 recoveries), by far the most for any county in Montana. Teton County, which hosts the south gate, has had 62 cases (48 recoveries), the second most for a county in Wyoming.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon also participated in the call.
“You don’t want to see a resurgence of the disease,” Gordon said. “We need to be making sure America’s best idea continues to be America’s best idea.”
Gordon said he has been in regular communication with Idaho Gov. Brad Little and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, other state leaders and county health officers.
Sholly said certain factors like Gordon’s current self-quarantine order on out-of-state travelers would be considered a controlling force.
Sholly is requiring all contractors have COVID-19 plans in place, and has been discussing worst case infection scenarios with these entities and local health officers, so plans can be made to expand and contract exposure risks with short notice.
“There’s risk associated with almost anything we open,” he said.
He also said NPS will make a strong effort to collaborate with guides and outfitters to determine the most effective ways to carry out their businesses this summer.
Discussion of what businesses within the Park can open up and when will be an ongoing discussion. Guest accommodations like the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and campgrounds could be candidates for limited openings, Sholly suggested.
“We have to have as open direct communication as possible,” he said. “We have to have a plan that makes sense and doesn’t overburden local services.
“Concessions are in a much tougher situation than the rest of the Park Service. We’re all going to be very creative with how to get some operations up and running.”
Sholly said it is unlikely visitor traffic will be capped to certain limits – the park can see 20,000-40,000 people on its busiest days.
Although Sholly said nearly every public health officer and elected official in YNP’s surrounding communities agreed with his decision to close the park indefinitely March 24, he is starting to see the first signs of disagreement on the issue.
“We’re already seeing different opinions on how long we should stay closed,” he said. “A month ago it was almost 100% (agreement); it’s not 100% now.”
Prior to the closure Sholly said the park was actually experiencing a substantial increase in visitors when compared to March of previous years, yet another testament to how strong the economy was before the pandemic hit. He said it was fortunate the closure came during the park’s shoulder season.
Bert Miller, general manager at Denny Menholt Chevrolet Buick GMC, said during the conference call that in the past week he has heard from many customers who find it’s time to open the economy back up and loosen restrictions.
“Last week there was quite a shift in talking about it’s time to move forward, it’s time to open up,” he said. “There’s a large amount of people starting to talk in Cody.”
Concessionaires like Xanterra Travel Collection and Delaware North provide YNP about $10 million in franchise fees per year.
“That amount will be less, likely in 2020,” Sholly said. “The longer we don’t collect fees the less money we take in.”
The Park receives about $15 million a year from entrance fees annually, of which it keeps about $11 million, in addition to the $20-$21 million it gets as base appropriations from the federal government.
“There will be potentially substantial shortfalls,” Sholly said.
But Sholly also said Xanterra’s bookings made before the pandemic hit have held strong although there have been very new reservations made.
Pia Brauser, sales and marketing director for Cody’s Brookdale Senior Living, asked Sholly if he would restrict any visits from international visitors.
“I’m worried about the health of the world and our nation,” she said.
Sholly said he did not know.
He did say long-term projects like elimination of lake trout, road construction from Fishing Bridge to Indian Pond, as well as setting up of an online reservation system for the Park, will continue as planned.