Although closed, Yellowstone prepares for future opening

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Warning sight

A sign warns visitors at the North Entrance that Yellowstone National Park is closed.

Although Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks were closed to the public on Wednesday over concerns regarding spread of the new coronavirus, work continues to prepare for an eventual opening.

In Yellowstone that means spring road plowing.

“We are working to put ourselves in a position to open up, whenever that is,” said Cam Sholly, Yellowstone superintendent.

The park was to begin gradually opening on April 17. At the request of surrounding community health officials and the governors of Wyoming and Montana, park officials decided on Tuesday to shut their gates. How long that closure will last is uncertain.

“We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of seasonal (workers) we normally hire,” Sholly noted. “We will continue to hire, but delay their start date … depending on when we actually open.”

Because of the park closure, visitors are being turned away at the only route that’s open year-round – the North Entrance at Gardiner.

“We do have the gate staffed,” Sholly said. “In the first day … it’s been fairly light traffic.”

Residents of Cooke City and Silver Gate, at the opposite end of the road through the park’s North Entrance, along with people doing business in those communities are being allowed to pass through the gate, he added. That privilege will also be given to snowmobilers and backcountry skiers who recreate on national forest lands in the Cooke City area. But there are limited services available in the small mountain towns, Sholly warned, since restaurants and bars have been ordered to close.

Anyone caught lingering in the park between Gardiner and Cooke City can be cited, Sholly pointed out. The road will be regularly patrolled by park rangers.

When the decision is made to reopen, Sholly said the park has sufficient cleaning supplies in storage to disinfect its facilities. Disinfectants and cleaning solutions are some of the items people have been purchasing in bulk since the COVID-19 outbreak has become more serious, leaving store shelves bare.

Prior to deciding to close, Yellowstone had taken steps to limit visitors’ exposure by closing its visitor center and the Boiling River, a popular hot springs soaking site.

“It’s important that people recognize that last week, even before the Wyoming and Montana governors put out closures … we had made changes,” Sholly said.

Yet people were still visiting Yellowstone, since early spring can be a good time to see grizzly bears and wolves. But health officials were concerned that even small numbers of visitors could spread the coronavirus or add to the stress of keeping store shelves stocked in Gardiner at a time when hoarding has become a problem. There were also fears that any COVID-19 diagnosis would quickly overwhelm the nearby community’s limited health facilities.

“It’s not a decision we took lightly or alone,” Sholly said.

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