Yellowstone social distancing

Sholly: We could see Yellowstone opening plan soon

With states surrounding the park loosening stay-at-home and out-of-state quarantine rules, we may see a Yellowstone opening plan as the Memorial Day weekend approaches.

As we approach the middle of May, we’re seeing a game plan originally presented on April 22 largely played out to perfection. At that time, Superintendent Cam Sholly laid out a reopening plan built around a gradual opening. Not every visitor facility will open at once; hotels and restaurants will likely open later in the season on a staggered basis. Tour buses may also be barred at the beginning of the season, but there are no plans to limit overall daily access to Yellowstone or require daily visitation registration at this time.

And that’s pretty much what’s happened. Sholly told a virtual meeting of the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce yesterday that he expects to release a plan “very soon,” but there could be twists. For instance, three of the five entry gates are in Montana, which still is imposing a 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors, and he hinted that not every gate will immediately open: “Opening doesn’t mean normal in any sense of the term.”

What’s on the table: an initial opening that would include public restrooms, self-serve gas pumps, roads and boardwalks. This opening is for daytrippers, with no overnight accommodations. If all goes well after a month, the planned opening for Xanterra facilities will take place.

There are a host of issues presented by opening Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. First, there’s a staffing issue: opening parks means expanding staffs, and that means planning for housing and serving them in the midst of social distancing. Should all the Visitor Centers open, and in what form? Second, there’s the issue of concessionaire offerings: Xanterra is planning on a June 15 opening for limited services and lodging, while Grand Teton Lodging Co. is looking at a May 22 for the Colter Bay Village Convenience Store, with other limited offerings not until June 5. In both cases, plans need to be made for concessionaire employees and their needs in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Third, there’s the issue of outfitting facilities to enforce social distancing, as well as mapping out social-distancing rules for areas traditionally attracting crowds, such as Old Faithful and the Old Faithful Visitor Center. Fourth, there’s the issue of who exactly is expected to show up and actually use the parks. With Montana and Idaho continuing 14-day quarantines for out-of-state visitors (Wyoming’s 14-day quarantine expires today), you won’t see many arrivals from outside the region. 

Meanwhile, local officials in Wyoming are requesting that Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park open on or before Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the start of the summer season.

As you’ll recall, it was after requests from Wyoming counties and Montana officials the decision was made to delay the Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park opening indefinitely. Now, the likes of Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon and the Teton County Board of Commissioners are asking for the national parks to open sooner than later—in fact, the county would like to see the park open as soon as May 15, but no later than June 1.

Photos by Jacob W. Frank, courtesy National Park Service.

This article originally appeared in the free Yellowstone Insider newsletter. Are you a subscriber? Sign up here!

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