Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. • Glowing purple and scarlet in fading afternoon light, the geological marvel that is the Grand Canyon, the crown jewel of America’s national park system, draws more than 6 million global visitors in a normal year and fuels the economy of Arizona.
But now, with Arizona leading the nation in coronavirus infections per capita, pressure is mounting to close Grand Canyon and other national parks in states across the South and the West that face spiking caseloads. As locked-down Americans clamor to return to the outdoors and families seek out safe vacations from limited options, the national parks could become the latest battleground in the fight over reopening.
When the pandemic took hold in the United States this spring, many local public health officials demanded that the parks close, arguing that the millions of tourists they attract endangered vulnerable people in adjacent towns and tribal lands, often-remote places with hospitals miles away.
Lacking much guidance from Washington, where President Donald Trump has from the start resisted virus-related closures, individual parks and local health officials devised their own strategies on the fly. Grand Canyon initially shut down on April 1.
The park partially reopened in time for summer tourist season. But now infections are surging in the states that host the nation’s most-visited natural wonders, and the country’s 62 national parks are struggling with how to safely allow visitors while preventing outbreaks. With Trump, who called for parks to reopen in late April, still urging swift reopenings of schools and other businesses, public health officials and park rangers worry that it could prove difficult to close the parks again if necessary.
The country’s parks were surging with popularity even before the pandemic shuttered Americans in their homes. Last year, the National Park Service logged 327.5 million visitors, the third-largest annual crowd behind those in 2016 and 2017.
While attendance has fallen in many parks because of the shutdowns — Grand Canyon officials estimate that its daily number of visitors could be cut in half — many people are still making the trip. At Cades Cove, a popular section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, weekend visitation in May was 54% higher than the same month last year even though the park was closed for some of that time.
In some ways, the parks provide a refuge from the pandemic. Experts say the risk of catching the virus is much lower outdoors. Camping offers a cheap, socially distanced vacation for families, and some parks are in sparsely populated areas with fewer cases.
But as the virus infiltrates growing sections of the country, some lawmakers are questioning the decision to keep parks open even partially.
“I felt all along that the public health rationale for closing these places, which was obvious to everyone, was overridden by the symbolic need to have something open,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.
On May 15, Grijalva, on behalf of the committee, sent the Interior Department a detailed request for the safety criteria it would apply to reopening national parks. The Interior Department replied two weeks later, calling the committee’s request “overly broad and unreasonably burdensome, particularly at this time.”
“It’s the same situation in all the parks,” Grijalva said. “The administration trying to shoehorn political and economic considerations into its decisions, and the public health taking a back seat to those discussions.”
In a statement, the National Park Service defended parks’ decision to remain mostly open. “With the support of Department of the Interior and National Park Service leadership, park superintendents are making decisions to modify operations for facilities and programs based on federal and state public health guidance.”
Parks have revised operations to better protect visitors and people living in adjacent communities. In Utah, Zion National Park is reducing visitors with a first-come, first-served ticketing system. In California, Yosemite National Park is taking limited reservations. Grand Canyon has closed some entrances, shops and visitors’ centers, and restricted Colorado River trips to protect hard-hit Native American communities nearby.
Still, crowds inevitably gather. On a visit to Yellowstone National Park last month, Lynn Bacon, 61, a biologist from Bozeman, Montana, was surprised to see hundreds of people clustered together waiting for Old Faithful, the park’s most famous and punctual geyser, to erupt.
“We were being cautious because everybody is there: Texas, Floridians, California, Wisconsin,” said Bacon, recalling the out-of-state license plates she saw. She estimated that 1% of the visitors she saw were wearing masks.
“It probably feels to many people that it’s a safe haven here,” she said. But “people are bringing it here,” she added.
Tens of thousands of people have visited Yellowstone since the park began a phased reopening on May 18. To prevent outbreaks, the park is testing both its employees and the wastewater system for signs of the virus.
While the park has not been a source of a known outbreak, Dr. Travis Riddell, the health officer for Teton County, Wyoming, which includes much of Yellowstone as well as Grand Teton National Park, said an increase in cases “very much correlates with the onset of tourist season here.”
He recently proposed a mask order for indoor public spaces that was adopted by Jackson, Wyoming. The mandate did not apply to federal land partly because of confusion about whether he had jurisdiction. Riddell said he would “absolutely” like to see a mask order for indoor spaces in the parks.
“I see it as a way for us to keep our economy functioning,” he said.
In Texas, where new cases are surging, the season has been marred by fits and starts for Big Bend National Park, an 800,000-acre mountain and desert region on the Mexican border.
Like other parks, Big Bend shut down this spring as many states issued stay-at-home orders. For Bob Krumenaker, the park superintendent, that decision proved far easier than weighing what to do after reopening the park again on June 1.
The park, which employs up to 14 emergency medical technicians, has one ambulance and the closest hospital is close to two hours away in Alpine, Texas, a city of 6,000. Given those vulnerabilities, Krumenaker said, park officials developed a strict framework for triggering another closure. On July 1, park officials announced they had met the threshold after a staff member tested positive for the virus. The park shut down again for at least two weeks, and on Wednesday, extended the closure for at least several more days.
“There is a huge burden on me to make as wise a decision as I can,” Krumenaker said. “I fully accept the responsibility of this job, which involves making these really tough decisions,” he added. “But there is no playbook.”
The tricky balance of weighing health and economic impacts is acute at Grand Canyon, which is in Coconino County, a sprawling region of 143,000. The park and the tourist economy it creates provide 12,000 jobs in the county, said Elizabeth Archuleta, the chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors.
The park closed on April 1 after county health officials suggested, then demanded, that it do so as infections in the park and county began rising. Grand Canyon began a phased reopening on Memorial Day weekend.
As coronavirus cases skyrocket in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican and close Trump ally, has taken a series of half-measures on closures, and rejected a statewide mask order.
What Archuleta said she needed from Washington was the flexibility to close Grand Canyon again should cases begin spiraling out of control.
“We’re here in the West and the decision-makers are in the East,” Archuleta said. “Making sure local officials’ advice is being heeded — that’s the tension.”
Grand Canyon National Park is a town unto itself, with a post office, housing, a school and even a grocery store for an on-site workforce of 2,000 to 2,500 in winter that grows to up to 3,500 in summer. Park employees and their families live and work in close quarters with the residents of Tusayan, the town immediately outside its perimeter. As of Monday there were 31 coronavirus cases in the ZIP code that encompasses Grand Canyon and Tusayan. There is no way to track how many tourists have the coronavirus, or were exposed to it while visiting the park.
The coronavirus presents multiple challenges for Grand Canyon emergency medical workers, who are short-staffed and handle calls inside and outside the park. They said they were still awaiting funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, signed by Trump on March 27, to hire four or five more medical professionals.
Rangers encourage hikers on the canyon’s narrow trails to wear a face mask but are powerless if they refuse to comply. Andrew Sprutta, a ranger patrolling the South Kaibab Trailhead last week, estimated that about 10% of the visitors he had seen wore masks. On the Bright Angel Trail the day before, half of hikers were masked.
It is both the joy and the danger of visiting here, he said, that “everyone is welcome to do as they wish.”