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.
Our vast public lands that are overseen by @Interior offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing. I’ve directed the @NatlParkService to waive entrance fees at parks that remain open. https://t.co/gDnKAIeYcX pic.twitter.com/lZ3h3M7odM— Secretary David Bernhardt (@SecBernhardt) March 18, 2020
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.
The health & safety of visitors, employees, volunteers & partners is the priority of @NatlParkService. Park superintendents are empowered to modify their operations, including closing facilities and cancelling programs, to address the spread of COVID-19.https://t.co/EP3X8kKNCu— Secretary David Bernhardt (@SecBernhardt) March 17, 2020
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.
Following guidance from the @WhiteHouse, @CDCgov, & local & state authorities, the NPS is modifying operations, including closure, for facilities & programs that cannot adhere to guidance. Where possible, outdoor spaces will remain open.— National Park Service (@NatlParkService) March 17, 2020
More:https://t.co/93Pz2iiCQb #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/bGhEmTe7Rk
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.
We are seeing the strain on our parks more and more as they fill to capacity or more. This is not the way to ensure the health and safety of visitors, employees, or the resource #protectourparks https://t.co/X571RjzTM3— Coalition to Protect America's National Parks (@protectNPS) March 22, 2020
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.
Yellowstone is announcing modifications to operations to implement the latest guidance from the White House, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), and local and state authorities to promote social distancing. Details at https://t.co/vs5eO6a2W4 pic.twitter.com/claxPS0b9j— YellowstoneNPS (@YellowstoneNPS) March 18, 2020
Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jhett93.
Note: This story originally appeared on Montana Free Press. It is published under a Creative Commons license.