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How COVID-19 is grounding Montana’s toughest communities



The Historic Madison Hotel in West Yellowstone communicates a heartfelt community message on the park’s opening day on June 1. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – Through some of the harshest conditions in the lower 48, the Yellowstone bison herd has thrived since prehistory, outdating Lewis and Clark, Christopher Columbus, even the Ice Age. A similar resilience applies to the Montana communities—Cooke City, Gardiner and West Yellowstone—that serve as gateways to the nation’s first national park, which attracts over 4 million visitors a year.

The challenge this year, however, is not due to extreme weather or time. To blame is the same enigmatic virus that has crippled well-resourced cities, precipitated the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, and claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans to date.

Recreationists across the country, motivated by the same urge to escape as the rest of us, are seeking solitude in open spaces. In late April, Gov. Steve Bullock cited that Montana has seen the lowest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the country, a statistic he credits to swift action in issuing stay-at-home orders in March, before even much higher-populated states chose to do so. 

Until recently, the state has witnessed a lapse in new cases, minimal community spread and been told by health officials that Montanans have “done our part” to flatten the curve. As of June 4, however, Gallatin County has six new cases, for a total of eight, two confirmed in the West Yellowstone community and all discovered in the past week.

After an early morning rush, the West Entrance, historically one of Yellowstone’s busiest gateways, remained quiet on opening day. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

Wyoming’s South and Southeast entrances of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks opened May 18 to a flood of visitors baring a wide variety of license plates. Even with only the two Wyoming entrances accessible, visitation through the East and South entrances on Memorial Day weekend were 97 percent of normal with a total of 4,686 vehicles entering the park, according to a May 26 National Park Service statement.

Bullock announced at a May 28 press conference that he was working with park Superintendent Cam Sholly to reopen the North, Northeast and West entrances to the park on June 1, the same day the state’s 14-day travel quarantine expired. Now, health officials are scrambling to prepare as people from across the country pack their camping gear, fill their gas tanks and head to the mountains.

“What if people look at a map and see that Montana has the lowest number of cases per capita in the country? What if they come and start to get people really sick?” said Buck Taylor, director at Community Health Partners, West Yellowstone’s only medical facility. “We may be asked to care for a lot of people and there’s just not that capacity. There’s no hospital, it’s just a small primary care clinic.”

In a typical season, CHP and the Hebgen Basin Fire District, the only EMS provider in the south end of Gallatin County, triages a variety of ailments, ranging from altitude sickness, trauma, car accidents, dehydration and an occasional heart attack. Call volume at the fire department increases by 200 percent in the summer from shoulder season.

Taylor said that, hypothetically, if three patients walked into their office needing immediate assistance within the same hour that CHP staff would be “very, very busy.” When necessary, CHP will send patients to the medical center in Big Sky or to neighboring hospitals in Rexburg or Idaho Falls.

Preparing for the unknown

COVID-19 adds another complicating factor to patient intake during busy summer months.

“This year what is challenging is now we don’t know if those folks have altitude sickness, COVID, or both, and trying to determine that is difficult without point-of-care testing,” Taylor said. “We have to treat everyone with these symptoms as positive whether or not they are until we know otherwise.”

To prepare, CHP, Hebgen Basin Fire District, the Gallatin City-County Health Department and Medcor, which operates three urgent care clinics within the park boundary, have divvied up a long list of to-dos. 

CHP is adapting its single clinic in order to maintain separation between COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 intakes, and is establishing a triage center much like the one Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital implemented back in March. Gallatin County’s health department is ensuring it receives a shipment of PPE and is seeking out ways to ramp up testing capacity as well as contact tracing.

Hebgen Basin District Fire Chief Shane Grube, who has taken up COVID-mitigation leadership in West Yellowstone, said CHP has committed to increase its ability to test and triage patients.

“One of the things that we foresee is an outbreak in the tight quarters of employee housing,” Grube said. “We want to be ready to test those folks and support them in quarantine if needed.”

At the Park County Health Department, bordering Yellowstone’s North Entrance, Director Julie Anderson said her team is also on track to increase testing abilities, ensuring residents and business owners are prioritized, and have secured quarantine facilities generously provided by the Super 8 and Country Motor Inn. 

Additionally, the new Livingston HealthCare campus, a Billings Clinic affiliate, offers a wide range of nearby services including emergency and urgent care departments.

“It’s safe to say we’ll see cases [in West Yellowstone] and they’ll be travel related,” said GCCHD Health Officer Matt Kelley. “That’s definitely a concern, and more of a concern if we start seeing community spread as a result of that, within the workforce, within the community … That’s when you really see higher numbers and that’s what we’re trying prevent.”

Funding outbreak preparations

As the federal government opens the parks, it has not yet committed aid necessary for these gateways to support the fallout that a COVID-19 outbreak would bring to a community with limited emergency services. This has left health officials with another critical task on top of keeping their community safe: finding the funding to do so.

When asked where a seasonal town of 1,300 people such as West Yellowstone seeks funding to prepare for a global pandemic, Kelley responded with a dry laugh. “You tell me,” he said.

In mid-May, Kelley said he sent a proposal to the governor’s office and remains optimistic, noting that he had also been in communications with FEMA and that reimbursements from them were another possible avenue of funding. Although no one could confirm an exact amount, after hotels, tests and the staffing necessary to triage and treat patients, the estimated cost could reach “several, several hundred thousand dollars,” Hebgen’s Grube said.

Park amenities contracted by Xanterra and Delaware North, as well as NPS campsites won’t open until later in the summer, meaning visitors will rely solely on gateway towns to shop, eat and lodge. If a single, infected person visits the park then travels to Gardiner, West Yellowstone or Cooke City to grab a burger or stay the night, they put the residents of that town at risk.

“People’s behaviors are not changing,” said Director of the Livingston Chamber of Commerce Leslie Figel. She experienced groups of visitors frustrated that the North Entrance was not yet open. “I’m astonished about the amount of people we’ve seen in the last five days. How are we going to handle the people who are going to get angry when they don’t get what they want and still be a place people want to visit? It’s going to be a different day and age of travel.”

Figel says Livingston, a town of 7,044 that has survived on tourism since the Northern Pacific Railway laid track in the late 1800s, is a tight-knit community and that despite uncertainties, business owners are prepared, as they always are, to host the annual rush of visitors.

Although the health of their community is of concern, it’s not the only thing on business owners’ minds.

A town born from tourism

It’s opening day at the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the first day of Gov. Steve Bullock’s Phase 2 economic reopening plan and the end of the statewide 14-day quarantine mandate, but you wouldn’t think it from West Yellowstone’s activity. 

West Yellowstone is the gateway to the park’s West Entrance, which opened June 1. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

The streets of the park’s busiest gateway are quiet for June, when they’d usually be bustling with the tourism that keeps them afloat. Many stores, usually open in mid-April or early May, still bare their “closed for winter” signage and those that are open have COVID-19-related verbiage, instructing people to sanitize upon entry and remain 6 feet apart while shopping.

There’s no need—there are but two or three small groups of visitors, some with masks draped loose around their necks, filtering in and out of the otherwise empty streets.

“It wasn’t as robust as past years but the fact that we had an opening day on June 1 is really encouraging,” said Katrina Wiese, president of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, of opening day traffic. “I think we all kind of expected a slower season.”

According to a park news release, vehicle traffic entering the Montana entrances between June 1-2 was 45 percent of the same days in 2019. Wiese says a variety of factors, including that tour buses were not included in the park’s first phase of reopening, contributed but that they have already seen reservations increase since the governor’s announcement.

“Our town is 100 percent tourism based; the community is extremely dependent on it,” Wiese said. “I know a lot of businesses have put a lot of money into reopening safely for both visitors and residents.”

Wiese said the threat of a coronavirus flare-up remains part of the conversation. “I think it’s probably on everyone’s minds, but our town and emergency medical services have been outstanding to work with to prepare our visitors and residents.”

According to a survey of 440 respondents conducted in early May by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, 44 percent of business owners said they have six months or less to survive if the current conditions continued. 

Statewide, this will cost 1,575 full-time jobs, 779 part-time jobs and 1,904 seasonal jobs that are typically filled in the summer. Massive cutbacks, limiting inventory and bracing for the long haul are how these gateways, many of which provide tourist tax revenue directly to the state, have been instructed to survive.

Businesses can also apply for funds through the Montana Business Adaptation Grant Program to receive up to $5,000 in reimbursements for any costs associated with keeping themselves and their employees safe and their business in line with state sanitation guidelines.

“A grant is always good, a loan is always bad. That puts us behind and we’re already starting out behind,” said Randa Hulett, who purchased Seldom Seen Knives and Gifts in 2000 with her husband, Stephen. They have been residents of West Yellowstone since 1972. “I haven’t seen anything like this since the fire of ‘88 … and maybe the day after 9/11.”

The Eagle’s Store has graced the corner of North Canyon Street and Yellowstone Avenue since 1908 and was open for business, but its signature soda fountain remained in shadow, the colorful tile bar roped off to imploring visitors.

The Eagle’s Store has graced the corner of North Canyon Street and Yellowstone Avenue since 1908. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

“Basically without tourism we don’t eat. If the park didn’t open this year everyone in this town would be on welfare. Families would be hit the hardest,” said a store employee who goes by Tony. Tony has been in West Yellowstone for 27 years, working in various local businesses, and has seen it all, except this.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I’ve seen fire and stuff but those go away. Nothing like this virus.”

In front of the Book Peddler, Lea Anne Reinsch sits at a small table beside a stuffed otter—both wear colorful, homemade masks. Reinsch is a resident of Ennis, but her family has owned the plaza building behind her for 35 years. 

Lea Anne Reinsch was selling masks on June 1 in front of the Book Peddler. All
proceeds go to the Madison Valley Hospital Foundation and masks can be purchased on
Reinsch’s Facebook page. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

Two months ago Reinsch had no idea how to sew but decided to purchase a sewing machine and teach herself how to make masks with adjustable ties and filter pockets. She donates proceeds to the Madison Valley Hospital Foundation in Ennis. Even after the pandemic, she says there are plenty of uses for masks, including wind and dust storm protection or while dirt biking of four-wheeling.

“It’s going to be a very strange year,” Hulett said, walking behind the counter of Seldom Seen.

In the 10 minutes we’ve been chatting, only one other person has walked by the store window outside. Hulett says, like many, she won’t know how deep the cut will be until October when the businesses of West Yellowstone balance their books for the season. 

“We just have to hang in there and see, that’s all you can do,” she said. “Usually people are complaining about the tourists … I don’t think you’ll hear them complaining this year.”

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