Yellowstone Closed

Yellowstone National Park has been closed to visitors because of COVID-19 since March 24.

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Visitors will be able to enter Yellowstone National Park from Wyoming beginning Monday, but the entrances on the Montana side of the border will remain closed until at least June 1.

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly announced the partial opening Wednesday on a conference call with the head of Grand Teton National Park and leaders and business owners from gateway towns. The move is the beginning of a three-phase plan to reopen Yellowstone after a seven-week closure because of the coronavirus.

The park’s east entrance in Cody and the south entrance at the border of Grand Teton and Yellowstone will reopen Monday at noon for day-use only. Visitors will only be able to drive around the southern half of the park. Grand Teton will also open that day.

Meanwhile, the park’s two busiest entrances — the north gate in Gardiner and the west gate in West Yellowstone — will stay closed without a definite opening date. It also means the northeast gate in Cooke City will stay closed.

Sholly said he is working closely with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and would defer to him on when those entrances could open. He added that he doesn’t think that time is far off.

In a press call later in the day, Bullock said those gates would stay closed until at least June 1. He said the state wants to ensure that businesses and health care resources in gateway towns can handle an influx of visitors and any corresponding increase in virus cases.

Bullock added that any reopening will be dependent on continued monitoring of virus cases and increased testing capacity. He also said the state is still early in its own reopening plan, and he wants to ensure the opening of bars, restaurants and other businesses won’t need to be scaled back.

“We want to make sure all these reopenings to date won’t set us back,” Bullock said.

Yellowstone closed on March 24. The closure barred visitors from the park but allowed some essential travel between Gardiner and Cooke City. Local health officials from the counties surrounding Yellowstone urged the closure, raising concerns that an influx of tourists could worsen the impact of COVID-19 in places like West Yellowstone, Gardiner and Cooke City.

Sholly said while there was consensus about opening the park, opinions about reopening have varied. Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon had pushed for the reopening of the park while officials in Montana have felt differently. Sholly also said the towns at each of the park’s five entrances are at different stages with the virus. Park County, Wyoming, which is home to Cody, has had just one case of the virus while Gallatin County’s case total has neared 150.

Travel restrictions are different in the three states Yellowstone covers, too. Wyoming lifted its mandatory 14-day quarantine order for out-of-state visitors. Those orders are still in place in Idaho and Montana.

Bullock said his staff would work with local officials to monitor Montana’s quarantine order and “figure out an appropriate path forward” to consider lifting the order.

The majority of Yellowstone’s visitors pass through Montana, with West Yellowstone’s gate being the busiest. The gate saw more than 145,000 vehicles last July, typically the park’s busiest month. No other gate cracked 100,000.

Sholly said there was no scenario where he could imagine opening all five gates at once. He also said limiting the number of gates initially gives the park a chance to work through the challenges of reopening with a smaller number of visitors.

“None of us have reopened a park in this COVID world,” Sholly said.

The first phase of reopening means visitors who go into Yellowstone next week will be limited to day-use only — no overnight stays. Only the Lower Loop road will be open, meaning visitors will be able to drive to the Lake, Canyon, Norris, Madison and Old Faithful areas. Trails and boardwalks will be open, as will bathrooms, gas stations and some medical clinics in those areas.

Services increase in phases two and three of the park’s reopening plan. Campgrounds, visitor cabins and backcountry permits would become available in phase two, as would boating and fishing. Some visitor centers may open during that phase with protections like protective barriers at desks, limits on the number of people inside and one-way foot travel.

The plan says phase two could begin this month and would likely extend through June.

Hotels and dining options wouldn’t open until phase three. Sholly said the park won’t consider even talking about entering phase three until the states and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say large gatherings are OK.

Some commercial tours can begin during phase one, such as those transporting 10 people or fewer while following social distancing guidelines. More can begin operating in the later phases. Sholly said commercial tour operators will have to submit plans to the park for how they’ll run tours amid the pandemic.

Tour buses will be restricted for the time being, but Sholly said that “does not mean we won’t have tour buses this summer.” He said he told the bus industry to help the park understand what measures bus operators will put in place for this year.

“We’ll work together to determine when it’s OK to allow large tours,” Sholly said.

Sholly said the park and its business partners would hire about 25% of its normal number of seasonal employees — about 1,000 instead of 4,000.

Sholly acknowledged that not opening all five gates immediately would mean economic harm for businesses in Montana. But he said while May is typically the park’s first big month of the year, the busiest months — June, July and August — are still ahead.

“We’re not obtuse to the strain and stressors that you’re under, and we’re working as quickly as possible to alleviate that over time,” Sholly said.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.