POWELL — As traffic backed up more than one-half mile at the gate to Yellowstone National Park, there were a few surprises for those hoping to be among the first visitors to drive through the East Entrance in 2020.
A moose strolled through the area just after sunrise, thrilling those already in line on Monday. Then, to mitigate the jam, park officials decided to open the gate two hours early instead of waiting until noon.
“It was a good surprise,” said Brian Perry, East Gate supervisor. “We were happy to open a little early. People were chomping at the bit to get in.”
As an added bonus, the park decided to make it a fee-free day. Many of the cars were from out-of-state, including many West Coast cars from places like California and Oregon, and from Eastern states such as New York and Ohio.
But the bulk of the visitors seemed to be from Wyoming and bordering states — especially Montana, whose Yellowstone entrances remain closed.
Drivers were met by park employees in masks and gloves and using a new swing-arm to hand out maps and information. The device will allow the collection of fees without employees needing to handle cards and driver’s licenses to mitigate the spread of germs, Perry said.
“We’re really pushing for people to use [debit and credit] cards rather than cash,” he said. “We’re testing the system out and doing the best we can to be socially distant.”
Perry would rather it was different. He likes a good handshake, he said. But safety is the number one priority during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Sunday, as the crew prepared for opening day, a group of bighorn rams wandered past the gate.
“It was the first time I’ve seen them at this level,” Perry said.
He wondered if the lack of people, due to the delayed opening of the gate, put the animals at ease, but “that’s just speculation on my part,” he said.
Karen Nelson of Cody was thrilled the gate opened early on Monday.
“I was calling all my friends to let them know,” she said while photographing thermal features at Sedge Bay with her son, Sven Owens. “We had heard horror stories [that] the line would be backed up for miles.”
Sven is finishing his college courses online, attending school and living in California, but recently came to Wyoming to visit. The family loves the park and had no reservations about trying to be socially distant.
“We’ve never been worried about the pandemic,” Nelson said, “other than having our cruise to Alaska canceled.”
Some visitors could be seen wearing gloves and masks, even in the privacy of their automobiles. Business in the gateway city of Cody has been slow to see a big jump in tourist activity to date. There are RVs staging at the Ponderosa Campground, but it was not full on Monday, and hotel parking lots still seemed to have plenty of room.
At Granny’s Restaurant, one of the largest eateries in Cody, there have been more cars with out-of-state plates in the lot, yet business is still mostly locals, said manager Jeremy Blaylock.
“We have seen a few tourists this morning,” he said Monday, “but just a few.”
Blaylock has mixed emotions about tourists streaming to town, staging for trips to area attractions. Granny’s needs the business, “but I’m worried about an uptick” in infections that might happen, he said.
Tina Hoebelheinrich, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, said her office was trying to gear up for the opening as fast as possible after working from home during the lockdown. Hoebelheinrich said she didn’t know if excitement by business owners was “universal,” but said the area is ready for a shot in the arm.
“I know that economic concerns are pretty serious across all sectors,” she said, adding, “Is our healthcare system ready? Is the business community ready? Are we going to be ready to have a tremendous amount of visitors right off the bat? I wish I had that crystal ball.”
At a news conference last week, Gov. Mark Gordon had expressed a mixture of excitement and trepidation as Wyoming’s entrances into Yellowstone prepared to open, and as the state continued to ease off its restrictions on public life.
“We’re doing that in a way that we believe is safe,” Gordon said Wednesday. “And yet I stand before you today knowing that our citizens are at greater risk today because of what we’re talking about with Yellowstone Park than they were. That’s not easy.”
He said it’s essential to get the country back to work, but urged people to do “the right thing.”
“I’m very hopeful that as we encourage more visitation to Wyoming [and] we start to see the tourism come back, that people take this seriously for the threat that it truly poses,” Gordon said.
With the West, North and Northeast entrances in Montana remaining closed, those wanting to visit Yellowstone must travel through either the East Entrance outside of Cody or the South Entrance, outside of Jackson in Teton County.
Gordon said he didn’t want to see those destinations overwhelmed, which is why he supported Yellowstone’s gradual reopening; visitors on Monday were limited to the lower loop and minimal services were available.
In a Thursday video message, Cody Mayor Matt Hall said he expects “a lot of pressure” on Cody and Jackson as visitors start to show up. The lack of coronavirus infections in Park County — which has had just one confirmed case of COVID-19 back in March — makes the East Gate the logical choice for Yellowstone visitors, Hoebelheinrich said.
Teton County has had 69 confirmed cases, and health officials there have generally taken a more restrictive approach for managing the spread of the disease.
“Anyone who is concerned with coronavirus, are traveling and look at the impact at the local level to choose a gate, it would be more likely that they would choose Cody because we’ve only had one confirmed case,” Hoebelheinrich said. “And I do believe that that’s going to make the community more appealing.”
Mayor Hall also noted in his video message that Park County has had just one confirmed case of COVID-19 “and we’d really like to keep it that way — whether you think we’ve been lucky or we’ve just been really good doing our social distancing practices that have kept those numbers low.”
“As we get a lot of people that start to visit our communities, we have to maintain that vigilance of those social distancing measures,” he said.
The hope is visitors will be patient despite their personal feelings about the pandemic. Hoebelheinrich urges those heading to the park to follow Yellowstone’s guidance.
“If Yellowstone says to stand 6 feet away from somebody on the boardwalk, do it. If they run traffic only in one direction of a boardwalk, please follow that guidance,” she said. “They really have put some effort and thought into keeping people safe. But at the end of the day, just like petting buffalo, it’s our responsibility to be safe.”