AILSA CHANG, HOST:
And I'm Ailsa Chang. Yellowstone National Park is reopening today - well, sort of. There's been pressure to reopen national parks even as many states are still seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases. Yellowstone is an especially complicated case. The park touches three states, all with a different mix of travel restrictions and rates of coronavirus cases. At first, the only way in will be through the parks' Wyoming entrances. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from West Yellowstone, Mont., it's not clear many tourists will show up.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Billed as the oldest operating hotel in West Yellowstone, the Madison is a short walk from the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. With its original pine log siding and thick wood beams, this hotel sits on a street squeezed with camera stores and trinket shops hawking Old Faithful T-shirts, wooden grizzly bears carved by chainsaws and paintings of the enormous Yellowstone Falls. Normally, these sidewalks beneath the old Western facade would be humming with tourists. But obviously, nothing about what we're living through is normal. Garrett Ostler owns the Madison Hotel.
GARRETT OSTLER: It's really disheartening. No one on the street - there is no one here. And you could shoot a bullet in any direction and not have to worry.
SIEGLER: Ostler is wearing a camo hunting hoodie and a red face mask with a bear claw on it. He loves to regale visitors with old stories about Yellowstone and what he calls the healing power of this park and its natural wonders. Ostler wants it reopened as quickly as possible.
OSTLER: And there's people who have been hunkered down for eight weeks, are ready for some healing and normalcy. And Yellowstone brings that.
SIEGLER: For now, tourists can only enter on the Wyoming side for day use. No overnight stays are allowed yet. And park entrances for Montana will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Of the 4 million annual visitors to Yellowstone, almost three-quarters of them typically pass through these Montana gateway towns. At the Madison, bookings for June are at about 15% of normal, and reservations later in the summer are cratering. Ostler says he's put the steps in place to protect his guests from the virus. But even he isn't sure how you regulate social distancing in one of the nation's most crowded national parks.
OSTLER: People really struggle with staying 50 feet away from a bison, let alone 6 feet from each other. And we're social critters.
SIEGLER: Yellowstone's highways and boardwalk paths are infamously clogged with tourists, crowds of amateur photographers and their tripods aimed at a bison or a bear on the shoulder of the road. And then there's Old Faithful. On a warm summer day, it's more crowded amusement park than pristine habitat.
CAMERON SHOLLY: I don't pretend to say that I can disperse every crowd and every picture you're going to see out of Yellowstone and Old Faithful is going to be people standing 6 feet apart.
SIEGLER: Yellowstone Park Superintendent Cam Sholly is ushering through what's being called a sunrise opening. Right now, it's bare bones and limited. But soon, some campgrounds and cabins might open up. The Trump administration appears to be leaving it up to individual park superintendents to make these decisions. Most big parks, like the Great Smoky Mountains or the Grand Canyon, are doing similar soft reopenings.
SHOLLY: No one is putting economics over health. But there's got to be - is there a balance in there that we can strike where we can start to reopen safely, get some of the economy rolling again - not go so far so fast that we can't pull back if it doesn't work out?
SIEGLER: Sholly has been pressured by gateway town businesses and Wyoming, in particular, to reopen. There are only a handful of known COVID-19 cases in nearby counties there. But he says he's also getting pressure to not reopen. The resort areas near the park in Gallatin County, Mont., have been a coronavirus hotspot. And in Montana and Idaho, technically all nonessential out-of-state travelers are supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days on arrival. It's not really being enforced, and Melissa Alder is nervous.
Alder co-owns Freeheel and Wheel, an outdoor store and coffee shop in West Yellowstone. Mostly, they're handing off coffees and products to customers out on the sidewalk.
MELISSA ALDER: Obviously, our store is very small, so you can't have more than two or three people in here to maintain your distance.
SIEGLER: Alder got stimulus money to help her ride through for a few more weeks. She'd rather the park stay closed than reopen too soon only to have to shut again later during the typical summer high season.
ALDER: We are fearful of the congregation of people that will come, and I don't think we're ready. I mean, we don't have a - 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.
SIEGLER: She's been noticing out-of-state plates arriving in town. Just the other day, West Yellowstone reported its first infections. And you are starting to see tourists out on the otherwise deserted Yellowstone Avenue. Donny Santee told me he drove out from Iowa thinking the park would be reopened by now.
DONNY SANTEE: And I think America needs to get out. If you think that the bug is something to worry about - you keep locking these people up, and you'll have a problem you ain't never seen.
SIEGLER: Santee says people like him know how to protect themselves and others from the virus. And he says President Trump is right to push that these parks reopen.
SANTEE: If you get rid of individualism, then you get rid of America. And I think that's really what this is about.
SIEGLER: That says it all about the challenges facing many institutions in America under pressure to reopen even if it's not yet known whether that's safe.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, West Yellowstone.
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