Many national parks remain open amid the COVID-19 crisis, free of entrance fees, short on staff, and overwhelmed by visitors. Sound familiar? A similar decision to keep parks open during the prolonged federal government shutdown of 2018 and 2019 created a massive, still-uncounted amount of damage to these national treasures. The big difference this time is that the lives of rangers and other park staff are being threatened. At the time of writing, seven national park employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
While a number of national parks—Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier included—have closed, other famous sites like the Grand Canyon remain open. A March 19 order from Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt waived entrance fees at those parks, and encouraged Americans to visit them.
“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” reads a statement issued by the Secretary at the time. And all available signs point towards booming visitation at open parks, though official estimates have not been released.
If we learned anything from the government shutdown of 2018 and 2019, it should be that waiving the $ 5 to $ 35 entrance fee most national parks charge leads to a boom in visitor numbers. Kids home from school, mass layoffs, and record numbers of people working from home could also lead to increases.
Another lesson from the shutdown could be that reducing the numbers of staff in parks, eliminating services like trash collection, and closing facilities like visitor centers and restrooms leads to problems. No tabulation has yet been conducted on the damage caused to parks during the shutdown, but images and reports of human waste and trash accumulated during that 35-day period were rampant.
In response to the current crisis, park units are individually adjusting their services and staffing. Some are closing shuttle rides, others visitor centers. If there’s a unifying theme to all of them, it seems like most group facilities—including campgrounds and picnic areas—are shutting down, even if big tourist draws, like the viewing areas at the Grand Canyon, remain open. And the NPS employees who typically staff those facilities aren’t working, leaving only skeleton crews of law enforcement and management behind.
“A park should not be open if its restrooms are closed,” Phil Francis, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks says. His organization is among those calling for all parks to be closed immediately. He says that doing so is the only way to protect, not only infrastructure and the natural environment within parks, but also their staffs.
Francis also forwarded me a directive sent from DOI to all NPS staff, which orders them to refer all COVID-19-related media inquiries to the national NPS office. A spokesperson at that office confirmed that all such matters are being handled centrally, even if the actual policies being implemented within parks vary individually.
Are restrooms open at the Grand Canyon? I’ve heard conflicting reports, but unlike normal times, I’m unable to reach out to the park directly with that question. Any emails I send to NPS staff are simply forwarded to that national press coordinator, who I am sure is now tired of sending me the same canned response.
More importantly, at which parks were those seven staff infected with the coronavirus? If I were a member of the public planning a trip to a national park, that’s something I’d want to know. But, NPS won’t share details, simply stating: “No further information is being released until we have contacted the employees at each of these parks.”
In response to my request for more information, the NPS spokesperson stated:
So far, the NPS has recorded 7 cases of employees with positive test results of COVID-19.
The NPS Office of Public Health immediately followed up with each of the positive cases to conduct contact tracing. In each case, potential contacts have been informed and are following CDC guidance.
In these initial cases, employees and visitors are considered to have low risk of exposure, either because the window for exposure was after park facilities suspended operations or closed to the public, the window for exposure was after employees were instructed to telework, or the employee did not work in close contact with visitors and once identified, went into self isolation.
But, we just learned that one employee of an NPS vendor—services like food and lodging inside parks are often provided by third-party companies—at the Grand Canyon has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Is that an eighth diagnoses, or do the seven total cases also include vendors? That person lives in, and remains living, inside the park in Grand Canyon Village. NPS states that they went into self quarantine on March 25, but has not detailed what exposure they may have had to other employees or visitors before that time.
“NPS staff are not trained in pandemic response,” says Francis. He questions the ability of park rangers and other park workers to protect themselves and the public from a highly contagious virus. I asked the NPS spokesperson to detail how contact tracing and isolation measures were being conducted, but received no response before the time of publishing.
Francis also expresses concern for residents of gateway communities, which often exist in isolated, rural areas outside parks, a long way away from major healthcare services. “By keeping parks open, we risk spreading infections to those communities,” he says.
I spoke with a staffer in the office of Representative Raú Grijalva (D-AZ), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and is joining Francis in calling for parks to close. They forwarded me an internal communication from the Incident Management Team at Grand Canyon National Park, which states that they’re currently collecting information to support a complete closure of that park.
The relevant part of that email reads:
The park’s IMT continues to work on support documentation to close Grand Canyon National Park to the public. This documentation was submitted through our NPS and DOI review process and is currently under review. Justification includes objective data and facts regarding critical operational limitations (i.e., public health, wastewater treatment, EMS staffing, etc.).
Currently the park has closure support from the GRCA Superintendent, Regional Director, and NPS Director as well as the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, the Navajo Nation, Tusayan Chamber of Commerce, and the Tusayan Fire Department.
Writing about all of this now is eerily reminiscent of writing about the shutdown’s impact on national parks last year. Then, we had reports of overcrowding and damage, followed by calls from various lawmakers and conservation organizations for a total closure. And then people started dying. Now, we have reports of social distancing measures not being followed, confusion over which services may or may not be available, and everyone from staff within the parks to lawmakers calling for a closure. At least people haven’t started dying in the parks, yet.
Are NPS and DOI taking that threat seriously? “Failure to work earnestly at this critical time would be disruptive to our Department’s important mission and increase burdens on our colleagues,” reads an email Secretary Bernhardt sent to NPS staff on March 25. The email’s focus? Reminding workers that established protocols for requesting sick leave or time off remain in place.
Update: April 1, 2020, 5:20 P.M. MT: Grand Canyon National Park is officially closed, though many other national parks remain open.