Despite COVID-19 Fears, National Parks Are Crowded Again Visits to Yellowstone National Park are higher than last year as Americans look to escape their pandemic confines. Their business is welcome relief, despite worries they'll also bring coronavirus.

'We Had To Get Out': Despite The Risks, Business Is Booming At National Parks

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NOEL KING, HOST:

After months of being closed, most national parks are open again. And lots of people are going despite the pandemic. People whose livelihoods depend on the parks are weighing the risks of all this. Here's NPR's Nathan Rott.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Standing outside the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont., you could tick through about two-dozen state license plates in the time that it takes you to drink a coffee. That is normal in the summer. What's not normal is the people driving those cars doing stuff like this.

LYNN HUNTER: We rented a van. And it has a Florida license tag. But I put a sign in the back window that said we are not from Florida (laughter).

ROTT: Lynn Hunter (ph) and her family are from Kansas. Hear that? Kansas. Even her grandson Noah (ph) will tell you.

NOAH: We're not from Florida.

HUNTER: Yep.

NOAH: Right, grandma?

HUNTER: Right. And we don't want anybody to think we are.

ROTT: Same goes for just about any place it's been in the news recently for having spikes in COVID cases. Families like the Hunters are driving to national parks like Yellowstone in droves right now, keen to escape from wherever they are and trying to salvage a summer of stress. And they know that it comes with risks.

HUNTER: We were scared to come.

ROTT: Oh, really?

HUNTER: We've been planning it for a long time.

ROTT: So here they are at one of the country's first national parks. And they're happy they did. Thing is, the same is true for about 1.5 million other people since mid-May. Ricardo Reyes and his family are from North Carolina.

RICARDO REYES: I'm amazed. I thought it would be kind of dead a little bit. But it's a lot of people out there.

ROTT: Over the last couple of weeks, the number of cars entering through the Gardiner entrance at Yellowstone National Park are higher than they were at the same time last year. Restaurants have long waits. Rafting companies are struggling to find enough workers. And fly-fishing guides like Richard Parks, owner of Parks' Fly Shop, says, too bad, anglers. There's just as many people casting for Yellowstone brown or cutthroat trout as there's ever been before.

RICHARD PARKS: I think we're getting some people that are just refugeeing out of those places.

ROTT: That's great for his bottom line. Parks says he makes between 80 and 90% of his annual earnings between June and September. But at 77 years old, it's also a bit worrisome.

PARKS: I'm, you know, an official old fud that is one of the people inherently more vulnerable than others. And I get a little nervous when I get some mob of people running in, no mask, no apparent care of how many people they should have in the place.

ROTT: But that's the dance he's having to do. Yellowstone brings in more than $600 million to its surrounding communities every year, most of that in the summer. Nationally, visitorship (ph) to national parks generates more than $40 billion annually. And so even while there are concerns, particularly around rural parks like Yellowstone, that outsiders may be bringing in more than just their pocketbooks during the pandemic, it's a risk that many are willing to take. And so far in Yellowstone, it seems to be paying off.

TERESE PETCOFF: Definitely good for the business community. I think that, you know, in May, they may have thought that they might not make it through the end of the year. And now they're seeing record-breaking numbers.

ROTT: Terese Petcoff is the executive director of Gardner's Chamber of Commerce. So far, she says, only two park employees and three visitors have tested positive for COVID. She's sure some have gone undetected. But the numbers thus far are encouraging.

PETCOFF: Typically, visitation goes way slower in October. So we only have a couple more months to make it through. So I think everyone is kind of holding their breath and just hoping that community spread doesn't happen.

CAM SHOLLY: I don't think I've ever been in a summer that I wanted to end as quickly as this one.

ROTT: Cam Sholly is the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.

SHOLLY: There's not a day that I come to work where I'm not fearful of multiple employees testing positive or having symptoms.

ROTT: Yellowstone, like many national parks around the country, is limiting its services this summer to try and protect employees and visitors, closing campgrounds in some cases or visitor centers. Social distancing and masks are strongly encouraged. Outside of the post office at Yellowstone's headquarters, two masked bear statues serve as a reminder. But the National Park Service overall has not mandated face coverings. Sholly says most visitors are doing a good job of protecting themselves and others, but not always. So he's urging people...

SHOLLY: If you're sick or you have symptoms or you're not sure, do us all a favor and don't come to the park.

ROTT: Or anywhere else for that matter.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Gardiner, Mont.

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