As some of the biggest national parks start to reopen, visitors reassure themselves that it is safe to be outdoors. But unfortunately in places like the ever-popular Yellowstone National Park, everybody is crowding in to see Old Faithful. On May 18, cars with license plates from all over the country filled Yellowstone’s parking lots and hardly a mask was in sight as people crowded together to watch the park’s famous geysers. Locals worry this could spread the virus to their communities.
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For now, only Yellowstone’s Wyoming gates are open. The Montana entrances remain closed. Tour buses, overnight camping and park lodging aren’t allowed. The park’s official stance is to encourage the use of masks in high-density areas.
“We checked the webcam at Old Faithful at about 3:30 p.m. yesterday,” Kristin Brengel, senior vice-president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, told The Guardian. “Not much physical distancing happening and not a single mask in sight.”
Cars from all over began lining up at 5:30 a.m. for Yellowstone’s noon reopening. Local Mark Segal said his was the only car he saw from Teton County. He worried about out-of-state visitors spreading the coronavirus to the local community. “What if everyone that leaves here goes and gets a bite in Jackson?” he asked. “This is exactly what we’re afraid of.”
Montana and Wyoming have had fewer COVID-19 cases than surrounding states. Locals are divided on the issue, with some local business owners pressing the park to reopen and bring much needed tourism dollars, while others are more concerned about public health. Melissa Alder, co-owner of a coffee and outdoor store called Freeheel and Wheel in West Yellowstone, told NPR she’s feeling nervous. “We are fearful of the congregation of people that will come, and I don’t think we’re ready,” Alder said. “I mean, we don’t have a hospital. We don’t have a bed. We don’t even have a doctor full-time here in West Yellowstone.”
Image via NPS / Jacob W. Frank