After a strong opening day at the East Entrance on Monday, traffic into the Park nearest Cody quickly dwindled below what was seen the same week last year.
On Monday, 504 vehicles passed through the gate when compared to 488 on the same date the previous year. On opening day 2019, which fell on Friday, May 3, the East Entrance drew 321 vehicles.
But Yellowstone superintendent Cam Sholly was hesitant to draw comparisons between that date.
“It was almost three weeks earlier with snow,” he said.
After Monday, the numbers dropped precipitously, with 322 total fewer vehicles on Tuesday and Wednesday than the same two dates in 2019.
The South Entrance near Jackson has taken an even steeper drop off.
Travel at that gate was down 42% when compared to the same days in 2019.
Between the two gates, travel is down by 33% and volume of traffic for the entire Park is less than 20% of what it was last year.
That volume has a lot to do with current restrictions brought on by the pandemic.
Out-of-state travel restrictions in Montana have not yet lifted, leaving the three Montana gates still closed. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said this will be lifted on June 1, at which point Sholly said the Park will work to open the other gates.
Sholly said the Old Faithful boardwalk has been one of the busiest sections of the Park thus far, and he spent 90 minutes on opening day there himself, monitoring the situation.
“A mix of compliance and non-compliance with social distancing was observed by park staff,” Sholly said in a press release. “Most families and groups traveling together were not socially distanced, as would be expected.”
Sholly said only a few tourists were wearing masks.
He said criticism the Park received for not separating large clusters of people is not deserved.
“If people are looking for staff at every location to be making sure people are standing six feet apart, that’s not a reality,” he said in a phone interview. “We’ve got a lot of armchair critics … maybe they should come help out to make sure people distance themselves.”
Sholly drew a comparison to the fact that staff cannot prevent the public from getting close to bears and bison inside the Park.
“We do put a lot of responsibility on the public,” he said.
He said visitors who are not comfortable being around those not wearing masks should visit the Park at a different time or actively separate themselves from crowds of people.
“We expect the public to partner with us to protect each other,” Sholly said. “While we are taking many actions to mitigate health concerns, including widespread messaging, signage, and direct public interface, the National Park Service in Yellowstone will not be actively telling citizens to spread out and put masks on, especially outdoors.”
He said Park staff will not actively enforce Centers For Disease Control guidelines to wear masks in outdoor areas.
“Once facilities begin to open, the park will evaluate more rigid guidelines on social distancing and facial coverings indoors,” Sholly said.
Sholly said the Park has spent about $136,000 on COVID-19 mitigation over the past weeks. It spent nearly $30,000 for personal protective equipment, including N-95 masks, Tyvek suits, face shields, regular masks and gloves. Around $50,000 was spent on new disinfectant sprayers to more effectively and expeditiously clean restrooms and facilities, $20,000 for facial coverings and thermometers; $16,000 for visitor center and entrance station mitigation and nearly $20,000 for signage. The park also back-ordered $40,000 in additional PPE and mitigation equipment.
The Park will also be investing $30,000 on wastewater testing, a measure the City of Cody has also recently taken. It will test sewage for COVID-19 from nine different wastewater systems.
Sholly said the Park is already allowing guided tours through backcountry operators and fishing experts, who have a COVID-19 plan in place and restricting their groups to 10 people or fewer.
Sholly said the decision to open the East Entrance two hours early on Monday came from him, out of concern for how many vehicles may have stacked up there.
He said he expected attendance to be lower than what it was on opening day, but is now surprised by the drop off at the South Entrance.
Sholly advises people to bring face masks and gloves with them to the Park and to purchase entry passes online before visiting, to further reduce contact with staff.
These passes can be purchased at recreation.gov/sitepass/72451.