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Yellowstone to Open in Phases

in Coronavirus/News/Yellowstone
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By Ruffin Prevost, Yellowstone Gate

CODY, WYO. — The first Friday in May has traditionally marked the opening of the East Gate to Yellowstone National Park, drawing a mix of locals and hearty travelers anxious to experience spring in a park still thawing out from a long winter.

But with Yellowstone still closed to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, tourism industry insiders are grappling with a plan for what summer might look like in the park and the gateway towns that rely on a steady stream of visitors to fill restaurants, hotels and attractions.

Park manages still haven’t announced an opening date. But they have said that Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks will see staged openings that start small and rely on fewer seasonal employees, with reduced services and a focus on visitor and worker safety.

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Xanterra Travel Collection, Yellowstone’s primary concessioner and operator of most hotels and campgrounds in the park, is planning on starting operations in mid-June. 

Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Xanterra, said Thursday that guest lodging will be limited at first to campgrounds and cabins that include bathrooms. Hotels will not open in June, Hoeninghausen said, but managers will assess options throughout the summer as public health conditions and National Park Service guidance allows.

Speaking to members of the Park County Travel Council, Hoeninghausen said he expects the campgrounds run by Xanterra to operate as they usually have, with a special focus on cleaning at shared restroom facilities. The Fishing Bridge recreational vehicle campground will not open, as road construction there continues this summer, concluding in the fall.

Hoeninghausen said Mammoth Hot Springs facilities will open June 15, with Yellowstone Lake area opening June 17 and Canyon opening June 19. Lodging will be limited to cabins and cottages at first, he said, “but if conditions change down the road and we’re in a position to open more or make additional services available, we’ll look at doing that.”

Grand Teton is following a similar strategy, focusing on cabin rentals, with no current plans to open Jackson Lake Lodge or Jenny Lake Lodge.

While Xanterra will likely continue boat rentals at Lake, bicycle rentals at Mammoth and other options that allow for social distancing, group tours in enclosed vehicles are not on the early summer agenda.

Hoeninghausen said he expects the Park Service to offer guidance to visitors on social distancing, particularly at places like the boardwalks around Old Faithful Geyser, but that practical limitations make enforcing any guidelines difficult and unlikely. The Park Service has not yet publicly discussed final details, but visitor centers, clinics and other key facilities are expected to be in operation when the park opens. 

Though no final decisions have been made on restaurants, sit-down dining is not expected to be an option in early summer, with grab-and-go food likely to be offered instead. 

Travel industry insiders are unsure what to expect of this year’s summer tourism season around Yellowstone and Grand Teton, but most say they anticipate a slow start as travel restrictions ease. 

Adventure travel fueled by regional auto traffic is likely to fare better than segments like theme parks, cruises or other venues where social distancing is difficult. 

Camping and fishing are seeing a “huge spike” in Internet search interest, said Andy Maclellan, president of Verb Interactive, a digital marketing agency that specializes in the travel Industry, and works with the Park County Travel Council.

Hotels in the park typically provide a sizable chunk of lodging taxes that gateway communities rely on to market themselves to travelers. But with those major facilities closed, and other hotels expecting significant cancellations, poor lodging tax collections this year will make it tougher to market the region next year.

Some gateway operators have also said they fear a lack of lodging may lead to clogged campgrounds and lodging in small communities nearest the parks. 

Some locals worry that tourists from foreign and major metropolitan markets may cause a spike in virus cases, taxing rural health care systems. Travel marketers in Park County and across the region are being cautious in their messaging, with a current focus on reminding visitors that travel should only happen when the time is right. 

But for many locals who have typically streamed into Yellowstone on the first Friday in May—as well as those who rely on visitors to provide jobs and pay the rent—that time can’t come soon enough.

Disclosure: Reporter Ruffin Prevost is a member of the Park County Travel Council. Contact him at 307-213-9818 or ruffin@yellowstonegate.com.

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When Will Yellowstone Open This Year? No One Knows.

in Coronavirus/News/Yellowstone
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By Mark Davis and CJ Baker, Powell Tribune

When will Yellowstone National Park reopen? That will likely depend on the recommendations and actions of health officials and leaders in the areas surrounding the park, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly says.

While Sholly does not know when reopening will come, “I’m not naive to the fact that this will happen sooner than later — that the economic impacts of this [pandemic], as time goes, will be in the forefront of people’s minds even more so than they are now,” he told Park County commissioners on Tuesday.

Yellowstone closed its gates to the public on March 24 as part of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19. Sholly said there was unanimous support from area leaders to shut down. However, he predicted that deciding when to reopen the international destination will probably be more difficult.

Sholly said he’s asked all four health officers from the counties surrounding the park — Park and Teton County, Wyoming, and Park and Gallatin County, Montana — to try to make a unified recommendation.

“I think a worst case scenario for us, for me here, is to get two county health officers saying it’s safe to open and two county health officers saying, ‘stay closed,’” he said, adding, “We may not be able to gain consensus, but I think the more that we’re talking about it and the more that we’re in agreement, the easier that’s going to be.”

Sholly also indicated that the park would likely look to follow area communities when they ease COVID-19-related restrictions.

The superintendent said the park could potentially “ramp up” to a full opening, perhaps allowing day use of the park prior to opening visitors centers, bathrooms and allowing vendors to open stores, restaurants and lodging.

“Then, as time goes on, you know, we would open more and more of those facilities, once it is safe to do so,” he said.

Xanterra Travel Collection, the operator of lodges and retail locations in the park, restaurants and other facilities, previously announced it was suspending its operations through at least May 22.

Before the pandemic, Yellowstone had expected to have all of its gates open by May 8, with the East Entrance opening May 1. Sholly reiterated that Park Service workers are continuing to get ready to open so that they’re ready when the time comes.

Asking for a constituent, Commissioner Dossie Overfield inquired about local “foot” use, but Sholly said that, “for right now … closed is closed.”

That means no bike traffic or hiking in the backcountry for local residents — even after roads have been plowed for the summer season.

“You get into this real slippery slope, as you can imagine, in what defines local,” Sholly said. “You know, people in Bozeman think they’re local. But people in Gardiner think they’re the real locals.”

And the superintendent — who’s already fielded multiple requests to allow locals in — indicated he wasn’t going to entertain that kind of decision making process about where to draw the local line.

“Generally speaking, until we open, we’re not going to make exceptions,” he said.

The North Gate is open to those traveling to Cooke City, Montana, but traffic is being closely monitored, Sholly said. Otherwise, nobody will enter the park “unless they’re on official business.”

The National Park Service has had inconsistent policies from park to park, saying it is “modifying its operations on a park-by-park basis in accordance with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local public health authorities.”

While most facilities and events are closed or canceled, many properties remain accessible to the public. For example: Yellowstone is closed to all visitors. Meanwhile, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area has closed its facilities, but the trail system and water access is still open.

The superintendent was quick to point out the economic impact of having the park closed when Commissioner Jake Fulkerson, on behalf of a constituent, asked for an update on park employees and vendors registering their vehicles in Wyoming.

Xanterra paid $3.7 million in payroll, sales and lodging taxes last year. Other concessionaires pay millions more in taxes from sales and gas taxes. But Sholly said many of the problem plates have been changed and are now registered in Park County.

“There are probably more serious conversations to have right now than whether a few people in Park County have Montana license plates,” he said.

While not dismissing the concern, “I think right now … our focus really needs to be squarely on getting the park open when it’s safe and being prepared to do so,” Sholly said, “ultimately getting visitors into these communities and businesses back on their feet as quickly as possible.”

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