Yellowstone to reopen access Monday in limited capacity


POWELL —  Starting at noon on Monday, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks will begin reopening through a gradual, three-phase plan. 

In Yellowstone, only the park’s two Wyoming entrances — the East Gate outside of Cody and the South Gate outside of Jackson — will open, allowing access to the lower loop for day use with limited facilities. 

The West, North and Northeast entrances in Montana will remain closed until state officials, including Gov. Steve Bullock, agree to opening them. 

On a Wednesday teleconference with business and civic leaders from the park’s gateway communities, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said the park was reopening under guidance from the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon and state and local public health authorities. 

The park has been closed since March 25 in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, which delayed some entrance’s traditional summer opening by weeks. 

“Many of you have expressed frustrations, and rightfully so in many ways, you’re feeling some economic pain,” Sholly said on Wednesday’s call. “We’re striving to make some of the best decisions that we can — ones that safely help everyone get back on their feet, but also that do not reverse the substantial progress that has been made in our surrounding states and counties.” 

The decision to reopen both parks in phases was reached after numerous conversations involving governors of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, Sholly, Grand Teton Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail and local officials from the three states and five counties surrounding the park. Montana and Idaho continue to have out-of-state restrictions in place, but Wyoming has lifted its out-of-state travel restrictions and specifically requested that the state’s entrances open the week of May 18, the Park Service said. 

“This measured approach will help protect employees, visitors, and neighboring communities,” Gov. Gordon said in a statement. “It will also give us useful experience as we look ahead to opening other areas of the park, provide a boost to Wyoming’s tourism industry, and help get America’s economy up and going again.” 

Gordon said the reopening is “really good news, but it is important for the public to follow local-area health guidance, use common sense, practice good hygiene principles, maintain social distancing and avoid crowding. Only you can prevent the spread of COVID.” 

Sholly said the decision to close the parks seven weeks ago was unanimous and that everyone involved agrees the parks need to reopened, but reopening is not a “one size fits all situation.” 

“It’s not necessarily going to be incredibly popular, maybe with some of you,” Sholly said. “We’re doing the best job that we can to reconcile divergent opinions on these issues with our partners.” 

The main focus is on protecting employees, partners, communities and visitors, he said. 

Economic recovery for gateway communities was one of the considerations in deciding how to open. 

“Everybody wants to get these economies moving,” Sholly said. “But we don’t want to do it recklessly or put ourselves in a situation where we open too soon and end up having repercussions later.” 

Visitors spend over $1 billion per year in communities within 60 miles of the two parks, according to Park Service data. 

Wyoming lifted its state travel restrictions last week. 

Park County, Wyoming — which includes more than 50% of Yellowstone — has had only one reported case of COVID-19 so far and zero hospitalizations. 

Gallatin County, Montana, which stretches from Bozeman to West Yellowstone, has had more than 150 cases, including two positive cases in the past week. 

About 70% of visitors to Yellowstone travel through Montana’s entrances. Montana and Idaho continue to have restrictions on out-of-state visitors. 

Those traveling to the parks should come prepared and follow all CDC and local health guidance by practicing good hygiene and social distancing, the Park Service said in a news release. Face coverings are recommended where social distancing is not possible. People who are sick should stay home and not visit the park, the park said in a press release. 

“We still have some of the best months in front of us,” Sholly told the local leaders on the call. “Let’s figure out how to open safely and conservatively — not put ourselves in a position where we’re putting July, August, or September in jeopardy because we’re making the wrong decision now.” 

Gov. Gordon is directing financial resources to gateway communities to ensure area healthcare facilities and first responders have adequate resources as visitors start to stream to the area from around the country. 

Phase 1 of the reopening will include access to lower loop roads, public restrooms, gas stations and limited stores, trails and boardwalks, entrance stations and limited “case by case,” pre-approved tours of less than 10 people. The tours include fly fishing, backcountry and wildlife viewing guide services. No large tour busses will be allowed. 

Beginning as early as late May or June — as health conditions allow — the park will begin Phase 2 of the plan. 

It will include the opening of some campgrounds, visitor cabins, additional stores, take-out food services, boating and fishing, backcountry hiking permits and limited visitor center services. 

There are no estimates for Phase 3 of the plan, which will see most services and facilities restored. 

In Teton National Park, the Jenny Lake and Jackson lodges will remain closed for the summer. 

Xanterra, the company that operates Yellowstone’s lodges and other concession facilities, is not opening until Monday, June 15, and is planning “limited lodging and services” at that time. 

Road construction projects will continue as scheduled this summer, including near Fishing Bridge. Areas of the park still experiencing winter conditions will see closures as needed.

Both parks have established a range of mitigation measures to “protect employees and the public to the best degree possible,” Sholly said. 

Measures include protective barriers, face masks and a wide range of protocols on sanitation and public interface. 

The Park Service and its vendors are only hiring about 25% of the typical workforce during Phase 1 opening plans. Yellowstone usually has about 4,000 combined employees in the park. 

“We hired a lesser number for this limited phase opening so that if an employee gets sick, we’re able to isolate that employee safely,” Sholly said. “If we begin to see community spread [of COVID-19] or large numbers of cases in our employee population, we’ve developed plans to re-close facilities if necessary, and even geographic regions.” 

Employees at the park will undergo testing to determine if the virus is spreading in the park. 

“We want to get into a cycle where we’re testing people, even without symptoms. It’s very important, especially for our first responders and people having more direct public interface,” he promised. 

Sholly added that, “I will not put my staff at risk of having them attempt to socially distance large crowds of visitors who decide not to adhere to social distancing guidance.”

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