By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune
A year ago, Yellowstone National Park leaders made headlines when they delayed opening the park due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, there were some who doubted the park would open for the season at all. And when officials announced the eventual opening in May, there were worries positive cases spread by tourists streaming in could overwhelm medical services in gateway communities and complicate supply shortages at area retailers.
However, many efforts to encourage social distancing and discussions with local health officials helped the park achieve a remarkable record: not one Park Service employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus until late September and there were only 62 cases the entire year (19 park employees, 42 concessionaire employees and one subcontractor). The moves to mitigate the pandemic paid off, said Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly.
“I attribute our success to a phenomenal team and partners, great mitigation and luck,” he said in a Thursday interview. “The wheels kind of wobbled in late September and October when we had quite a few cases. But overall, considering we hosted almost 4 million visitors in the middle of a pandemic … people should be really proud of what we did last year.”
Considering there were almost no international visitors in 2020, the park did well, finishing the year with 3,806,305 visits. That was down 5% from 2019, but still the sixth-most visits in the history of America’s first national park.
As Americans began searching for socially distanced activities, they headed to the great outdoors in record numbers. By August, the crowds began piling in through Yellowstone’s gates. It was the second-highest August on record and the following two months broke attendance records.
“Now what we’re seeing is September is busier than June was in most years. And October is extremely busy,” Sholly said. “So we’ve gone from three or four months of being really busy to five to six months of being really busy. That’s great for the economics of the surrounding communities, but it’s a major challenge that we all need to figure out moving forward.”
Sholly is gearing the staff up for a record-setting year. “I think this year is gonna be a real test. I predict it will be the busiest on record. And ironically. I mean, look at COVID last year: Who would have thought that we’d be having this conversation a year ago?”
Part of the Park Service’s plans include pushing for high levels of vaccinations. More than 900 employees have already been vaccinated, Sholly said, and anyone working in the park who wants to be vaccinated can do so in the next six to eight weeks. He said much of that was thanks to Wyoming officials.
“I commend the governor and Park County for being there for us,” Sholly said.
Reservations for gateway communities near the park’s East Entrance are coming in quickly, said Claudia Wade, executive director of the Park County Travel Council.
“I’m very optimistic,” she said, but cautiously so. “Having a record year in the park doesn’t mean record year for gateway communities.”
Due to restrictions on travel there will be fewer seasonal workers, motor coach operations are currently unsure of their plans and there are still restrictions on employee housing and hotel availability, Wade said. There will also be few, if any, international visitors.
“It will mostly be domestic tourism. On the other hand, we can’t go anywhere either,” she said. “I continue to encourage people to be safe — COVID-19 is not behind us by any means — but I still think this year will be considerably better than the last.”
Visits to National Park properties have increased by 50 million since 2013, including a streak of top 10 attendance years in Yellowstone. Meanwhile, the number of employees in the park has been stagnant for more than a decade, which Sholly said will need to change.
“If you want to host more people, you’re going to need to add the staff to do it,” he said. The superintendent noted that, if an increase in visitors leads to Yellowstone’s resources being degraded, that will ultimately have a negative impact on the Cody area as well.
“I think, especially if you start looking at what types of impacts more visitors have on the park, one way to mitigate that is with more staff,” Sholly said. “If you don’t have that staff, what options do you look at in order to protect and prevent and mitigate resource damage?”
Several of Yellowstone’s entrances are already open to wheeled vehicles, while the East Entrance is set to open Friday, May 7. The route from the Northeast Entrance through Cooke City, Montana, and down the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is set to officially open Thursday, May 13.