Grand Prismatic Spring

Crowds of visitors on the wooden walkways at the Midway Geyser Basin walk through the steam clouds around the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

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Montana, and Bozeman especially, is a tourist magnet. People flock here for a variety of reasons: the wide-open spaces, our proximity to the first national park, the world-class skiing, the small-town feel. But with COVID-19 shutdowns and quarantines still in effect, businesses that depend on nonresident travelers are feeling the pressure.

“June, July, August, September, that’s our bread and butter,” said Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs.

Davis is also on Gov. Steve Bullock’s Coronavirus Relief Fund Task Force, helping provide guidance on how to use the $1.25 billion given to Montana through the federal CARES Act. He and his team made the decision in March to close Chico Hot Springs until June 1 and lay off 155 of the 170 workers employed at the resort, a decision Davis called “emotionally painful,” even if closing was the responsible decision.

“To have a crew this size and have every person down to the last one be hardworking, dedicated, loyal … It really is a family,” he said. “Financially, it’s been devastating.”

According to Stuart Doggett, the executive director of the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association, Chico is far from the only hotel that has suffered major cutbacks in staff and services. Bookings for hotel rooms dropped dramatically at the end of March and throughout April, with reservations remaining very low in May.

However, Doggett said, some hotels are seeing more reservations toward the end of June and into July, which might be a good sign for the industry — as long as there’s not another shutdown.

This year “is projected to be the worst year on record for hotel occupancy,” Doggett said. “We are in hopes that we move forward into the next phases and the quarantine for travelers, when it’s appropriate, is modified or lifted.”

Those reservation trends are also apparent at Chico, one of more than 300 members of the association.

“Later in August, September, I think we’ll see more normalcy in that,” Davis said. “Assuming by then that (Yellowstone National) Park will be open.”

Yellowstone National Park brought in more than four million visitors in 2019, many of those in the summer season. The park closed to all visitation in response to the virus on March 24 and doesn’t yet have a reopening date, though park superintendent Cam Sholly said he’s hopeful that it will be possible to safely open to visitors in the coming weeks.

Some parts of Yellowstone would still be closed now during a regular season anyway, like backcountry areas that are still underneath snow. At the 2020 Virtual Visit Big Sky Annual Marketing Outlook Meeting, Sholly said his team has a plan.

“We’ve got the ability to start conservatively, accelerate if things are looking good and then be able to contract if they’re not,” Sholly said.

Xanterra Travel Collection is Yellowstone’s largest concessionaire, in charge of operations at nine hotels, 30 food service facilities and over 800 other buildings within the park. It announced at the end of April that it will begin to open some accommodations on June 15 — mostly cabins and limited services, and none of the major hotels. Sholly said Xanterra is seeing more reservations later in the summer.

“The fastest thing that could shut the park down again would be if we had a massive outbreak of COVID with our employees, our workforces,” Sholly said. If that happens, his team has a plan to shutter facilities again.

Normally, he said, the park hires about 4,000 summer employees. But this year, it’s only bringing on about 1,000. With the reduced workforce, there will be enough housing to isolate employees if any show symptoms of the virus. However, those reduced numbers will also mean that the park won’t be able to operate as many facilities as usual.

“We can do a better job of controlling social distancing and allowing only a certain number of people into a facility,” Sholly said. “The Park Service is not going to have the staff to sit in the middle of crowds at Old Faithful and spread people out ... Plus, that puts our employees at risk.”

In the worst-case scenario, Sholly said the park would consider closing again.

“We hope that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Getting to Montana

The Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport is the largest airport in Montana, with direct flights to travel hubs all over the country. But, like other travel-related industries, the airport is also taking a big hit.

Airport director Brian Sprenger said that, after a brief rush in March, the airport has been seeing between 5% and 7% of its regular passenger numbers.

“We don’t expect that to change until we move into phase three of the governor’s recovery plan,” Sprenger said in a late April interview with the Chronicle. Sprenger said his team is estimating that Phase 3 may begin sometime in June, though “that’s probably optimistic,” he said.

Because people flying into Bozeman are nearly always coming from out-of-state, Sprenger said nationwide travel will also need to have a more coherent strategy before travel picks up.

“It can become so difficult to determine what’s allowable and what’s not allowable that you really paralyze the industry even longer because there’s no definite,” he said. “It really complicates the reopening of the nation on a travel and trade basis.”

Mandatory quarantine for travelers

According a preliminary report by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research published in January, 12.6 million nonresidents visited Montana throughout 2019 and collectively spent more than $3.6 billion while here for typically three to five days.

Tourists’ number one spending category was gasoline and diesel at more than $852 million, about 23% of out-of-state dollars spent in the state. The next top spending categories were restaurants and bars and hotels and motels. Together, those two categories add up to more than $1 billion and about 31% of total nonresident spending.

Montana asked all travelers coming from out of state to quarantine for 14 days, including residents who left and came back, with the exception of people coming or going for essential work. Bozeman Chamber of Commerce CEO Daryl Schliem said that, while the 14-day quarantine makes sense for public health, businesses that rely on tourist money will likely remain in limbo until it’s lifted or amended.

“I think until that 14-day quarantined gets lifted or (we receive) some guidance or assurances of how we can move past that, it will stall the economy where it’s at right now,” Schliem said. “That is troublesome all the way around, because I don’t think people are willing to, nor can they afford, to be gone that long from their work.”

Not all Bozeman businesses have been able to weather the storm the virus has wrought. Since the shutdowns began in March, multiple restaurants — including the popular Saffron Table on Main Street — have permanently closed.

The state is in phase one of Gov. Bullock’s opening plan, which allows restaurants and bars to open at partial capacity with social distancing requirements. But depending on how long phase one lasts, that might not be enough to sustain all of them.

“The margins in a restaurant and a lot of businesses aren’t what people think,” Schliem said. “I do think we’re going to see probably a few more businesses that will not make it through.”

Schliem said if the virus causes a second shutdown, there would likely be many more businesses to follow.

“That would be devastating,” Schliem said. “We’re resilient enough to support each other and get through this, but how much longer? I wish I had the answer for that.”

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.