In the midst of the pandemic, nothing is as simple as we might hope. While many of us are looking forward to the day America's national parks resume operations, the situation is more complicated than just throwing open the gates and letting people in.
"Just because you read that a park is reopening, it’s important to see what will actually be open," said National Park Trips' co-brand and content director Tori Peglar. "Will restaurants and bathrooms be open, or just roads?"
Peglar points to a critical fact about national parks that many visitors may not realize, but which promises to complicate reopenings: Many park facilities like restaurants, lodges, and bathrooms are operated by private concessionaires working under contract for the National Park Service. The operations of those companies, which make their own decisions regarding employee and customer safety, might not sync perfectly with those of the parks that contract them. If summer visitors make plans without understanding this fact, they might be in for an inconvenient surprise.
"Yellowstone, for instance, is bigger than Rhode Island," Pegler said. "If the park opens up before the concessionaires and you're out there, you might have to drive an hour or more to get food, to one of the gateway communities like West Yellowstone."
Of course, many parks are working closely with concessionaires and local officials to coordinate reopening efforts. But that doesn't mean the coordination will necessarily be successful.
"Our managers are working on plans with our partners as well as with local health officials and the state," said Yellowstone public information specialist Linda Veress. "All we know is that park is still closed and we don't have an opening date yet. It’s hard to speculate about what it will look like when it reopens, but it will be a group effort between the park and all of our partners, with the gateway communities looped in too."
For its part, Xanterra, the concessionnaire that operates many of Yellowstone's campgrounds, dining, lodges, and tours, has announced that it will—for the time being—suspend all operation until June 15. According to Rick Hoeninghausen, director of sales and marketing for Yellowstone National Park Lodges, that date is subject to change, though.
"It’s all dependent on when the park opens," Hoeninghausen said. "The NPS is in charge of the park and we'll do whatever we need to make sure we're consistent with them."
Hoeninghausen noted that because Xanterra employees typically live in dormitory-style housing, at present the company plans to open with reduced staffing to allow every employee his or her own room with a private bathroom. He also said that Xanterra plans to open on June 15 with cabin lodging only for guests.
Yellowstone is also an interesting case study because it straddles three states—Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. By the time the park reopens, travel restrictions, public health rules, and social distancing guidelines in those states might differ.
"That’s going to impact how you travel," Pegler said. "You have to pay attention not only to what’s going on in the park but also to what’s going on in the surrounding communities.”
A full list of NPS public health updates can be found here. As for exact reopening dates, each of the nation's 62 parks faces a situation as complex as Yellowstone's. Some, like Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Great Smoky Mountains, have release specific information about resuming operations, but most still have not.