How COVID-19 May Impact Tourism In Northwest Wyoming

Mar 27, 2020

Every year, thousands of American and international tourists pass through Cody as they leave or enter Yellowstone National Park. The summer tourism season officially starts May 1, when the park's east gate opens. That's usually a busy time, but things might be different this year.

At the start of May, Cody changes from a sleepy, western town to a bustling community filled with tourists. One place where this is most apparent is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West where the five museums go from empty to crowded.

"We rely so heavily on tourists," said Peter Seibert, the CEO and executive director of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

He said the museum made the difficult decision to close its doors last week for the safety of its staff but hopes to reopen soon.

"Much hinges upon things like the opening of Yellowstone to the public. And you know, things like that are outside of our control," said Seibert. "So, while we may be open, but Yellowstone is closed, that will impact our visitation as well."

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks announced earlier this week that they are closing to all visitors with no planned reopening date. Yellowstone Superintendent Cameron (Cam) Sholly said the decision came after discussions with representatives of areas communities.

"It's been a lot about them wanting to make sure they've got the health care, infrastructure, necessary to care for the residents of the county and the communities," said Sholly. "It's about the supplies, you know, food, the things that are being delivered to these rural communities, and ensuring that we don't have large numbers of visitors taking supplies that residents need."

Sholly said he realizes how economically important Yellowstone is to the neighboring communities, but closing the park now will have minimal impact.

"The park is still about 90 percent under snow. And so the vast majority of the roads in the park weren't scheduled to open until at the earliest April 17. And in some cases, as late as May 1. Most of the roads in Wyoming in the park are in that situation," said Sholly.

This will give the area time to access the situation, said the Park County Travel Council Executive Director Claudia Wade.

"So, these next five weeks will determine how much that affects us. They [the parks] said it was a temporary closing. There were no deadlines or discussion about how long that will be," said Wade. "So hopefully, as we know, everything changes pretty quickly with this COVID-19. And it's hard to say what five weeks will do."

Wade said they are paying attention to what health officials are recommending about social distancing and will follow their lead. But, even if the east gate opens on May 1 as planned, COVID-19 has already impacted the beginning of the summer season.

"I believe there are a few cancellations into June. But we are hopeful that we can get things turned around or things will be turned around in time for us to salvage the latter part of the summer and have a good fall travel season," said Wade.

Tina Hoebelheinrich, the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce executive director, said she's cautiously optimistic that Wyoming will flatten the curve in the next couple of months. And then when regulations are loosened, people will want to come to the area.

"We do see that families are, you know, getting stir crazy and wanting to take advantage of the wide open spaces here in Wyoming and in Yellowstone," she said.

But Dr. Aaron Billin, the Park County public health officer, said people should still be cautious, especially if the restrictions are removed.

"People will start to forget the importance of social distancing, and they'll start thinking they can begin traveling again," said Billin. "As this tapers off, we think an influx of people into surrounding counties could bring the coronavirus from multiple other places, and we could see another spike in surrounding counties."

Billin said Yellowstone National Park itself employs hundreds of seasonal international and domestic employees. Plus, hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world will be in the region when the park is open. Billin said this influx of people will probably start arriving sometime in July.

"This concern is on two levels. Number one, they could expose, bring the coronavirus from other locations and expose people who live and work here. And with that big influx of tourists, visitors, people who get sick here would then be subject to our resources here that probably will be stretched thin at some point," he said.

The problem is no one knows how long the pandemic will last. But most scientists and health experts agree the best case scenario is, it will be 12 to 18 months until a vaccine is developed. So, until then, it will have to be a balancing act between economic impact and the health and safety of the residents.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Kamila Kudelska, at kkudelsk@uwyo.edu.