LIVINGSTON — Park County and Gallatin County officials have requested that Yellowstone National Park be closed to visitors in response to concern that tourists may contribute to an outbreak of COVID-19 in the park’s neighboring counties.
Matt Kelley, health officer of the Gallatin City-County Health Department, wrote to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly and U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, asking that the park be closed. Kelley wrote that millions of visitors, many of whom travel through Gallatin County, visit the park each year, according to a report by the Montana Free Press.
“If you fail to take action to curtail this mass migration of tourists, it will imperil the ability of local health care, public health, and government resources and may cost lives,” Kelley’s letter said.
Also on Sunday, Park County Health Officer Dr. Laurel Desnick sent a letter to Bernhardt asking that he close the park to visitors, referencing the county’s limited resources to respond to an outbreak of COVID-19.
“A lot of movement and influx of people into our county would likely put a strain on our healthcare system that could ultimately harm many people,” Desnick wrote.
Gallatin County has reported the highest countywide total of positive cases in Montana, with 10 as of Sunday, March 22. Two of those cases are not Montana residents. There is evidence that four of the cases were contracted via community transmission of the coronavirus, meaning the disease is spreading within the community, Kelley said Sunday. Kelley said none of the current cases in Gallatin County have been linked to each other.
Kelley said that guidance for the public is not changing, and that Gallatin County is not anticipating additional rules or restrictions on businesses beyond the closures announced by Gov. Steve Bullock earlier this week. Kelley urged people not to socialize with friends and to wash their hands in order to stop “preventable new cases and deaths.”
“This is not surprising. We’ve known this day was coming, and we’ve been working hard with partners to prepare the community,” Kelley said.
Park County, which includes Livingston and Gardiner, and has tested more than 100 people, has not confirmed a positive case of COVID-19.
The letters were sent with the support of Gov. Bullock’s office, county officials said.
Tourist destinations nationwide are experiencing increased visitation during the coronavirus pandemic. Moab, Utah, has asked tourists to stay home and closed all hotels to nonlocals after Arches National Park registered an increase in visitation. In Vail, Colorado, the mayor has tested positive for COVID-19, and the local hospital CEO has warned that its 56-bed facility will soon be overflowing.
An influx of visitors could overwhelm communities with limited health care infrastructure, and tourism officials nationwide have asked people to consider canceling travel plans.
Gardiner, a town of about 900 people, is the only entrance currently open to Yellowstone National Park. Gardiner does not have a health center. Livingston, 52 miles to the north, has one hospital and two isolation rooms.
On Thursday, March 19, Livingston and Park County declared a state of emergency. On Friday, the city issued emergency guidelines. The declaration from City Manager Michael Kardoes said that upon identification of a positive case in Park County, all city parks will be closed. Additionally, Kardoes said, if Livingston HealthCare’s capacity should fill to 50%, the city will restrict public movement to “essential” travel only. If 100% of the hospital’s capacity is reached, the city will consider imposing a curfew and prohibiting entry or exit from the city.
On Wednesday, March 18, Bernhardt removed admission fees from all national parks and encouraged people to visit them.
“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” Bernhardt said.
The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks called for parks to close facilities that require close interaction between employees and the public.
On Thursday, Phil Francis, chairman of the coalition, said Bernhardt’s actions were irresponsible.
“We should not be encouraging more visitation to our national parks. It is irresponsible to urge people to visit national park sites when gathering at other public spaces is no longer considered safe,” Francis said in a statement.
Rocky Mountain National Park closed to visitors Friday, March 20, at the request of local officials. Yosemite and Hawaii Volcanoes are among the other national parks that have since closed. On Friday, the National Parks Conservation Association urged California’s other national parks to follow Yosemite’s lead, and asked other parks across the U.S. to follow the advice of public health officials.
Yellowstone National Park has taken steps to limit employee exposure to COVID-19, including removing staff from entrance stations and closing both the popular Boiling River soaking area and Albright Visitor Center, the park headquarters in Mammoth, Wyoming, a few miles south of Gardiner.
On Friday, the park ordered tour companies operating in Yellowstone to limit group size to no more than 10 people and to enforce social distancing of six feet between guests, according to an email sent to park guides.
Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which operates lodging facilities in the park, has closed all its facilities through at least May 21. Delaware North, which operates Yellowstone General Stores, has closed all its stores other than the Mammoth General Store through May 21.
Gas stations remain open. The park’s interior roads are still scheduled to open April 17. On that date, the park’s other entrances are scheduled to begin opening as well, according to the letter.
March and April are usually slower months for visitation to Yellowstone. March generally averages about 22,266 visits, while April averages 44,027 visits.
Given the season, many businesses in Gardiner were closed even before Gov. Bullock’s statewide closure of restaurants, bars, hot springs, and gyms on Friday, March 20. Additional local closures have been imposed in response to the crisis. The Gardiner Visitor Center closed its public restrooms and 24-hour vestibule. Yellowstone Forever, the nonprofit partner of the park, closed its store near the park entrance through at least March 27.
On Sunday morning, Gardiner Market, the town’s only grocery store, posted to Facebook that it had seen an influx of large groups, and was asking that shopping be limited to one person per group.
Posts to the Mammoth/Gardiner Community Message Board on Facebook indicated that residents are observing an increase in visitation to Yellowstone.