An influx of spring visitors to Grand Teton’s vistas and Yellowstone’s geysers could be a tipping point for Jackson Hole’s limited medical infrastructure, local officials said Monday. Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks eased those worries Tuesday when the parks announced closures to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The parks, key economic drivers for Jackson and neighboring communities, are immediately closed until further notice.
“The National Park Service listened to the concerns from our local partners and, based on current health guidance, temporarily closed the parks,” Yellowstone superintendent Cam Sholly and Grand Teton acting superintendent Gopaul Noojibail said in a press release.
Park officials weighed their options amid growing pleas from officials across the region. Yellowstone received “a substantial number of requests to temporarily close,” Sholly said in a statement issued Monday evening. The park fielded such requests “from the governors of Montana and Wyoming, health officials from all surrounding counties and local government leadership.”
Grand Teton National Park also worked closely with Jackon and Teton County government, local health officials and the state of Wyoming to make this decision, Grand Teton spokesperson Denise Germann told KHOL.
The parks’ announcement comes as people increasingly seek nature’s medicine amid social distancing recommendations (limiting contact with other people, staying home and keeping a distance of six feet from others) to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration waived entrance fees last week to the nation’s parks to expand access to public lands. But small communities bordering national parks weren’t necessarily thrilled with that news. Rocky Mountain National Park closed last week at the request of Estes Park’s mayor and health department on the heels of that community’s first confirmed case of COVID-19.
Days later, and with two COVID-19 cases confirmed in Jackson, Jackson Town Council voted unanimously to send letters to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and Bridger-Teton National Forest that outlined their worries.
The letters—signed by the Board of Teton County Commissioners’ chair Natalia D. Macker, Jodie Pond of the Teton County Health Department, Dr. Paul Beapre of St. John’s Health and Teton County public health officer Dr. Travis Riddell—cited the countywide public health mandates enacted last week. Those measures limit the size of public gatherings and shut down dine-in restaurants, bars, theaters and other “nonessential” businesses. (The state of Wyoming also passed a similar measure following the county’s order, but with the addition of schools and most daycares.)
Riddell issued these directives with Jackson’s medical infrastructure in mind.
“We have taken these steps in order to reduce the peak demand for critical health care services, and to attempt to keep that demand in line with our treatment capacity,” the letter reads. “While our hospital is as prepared as possible, it has a limited capacity to treat residents of our county.”
The letters gave Jackson a voice as the parks pondered when to open for spring, Mayor Pete Muldoon said. Grand Teton’s Noojibail was indeed considering Jackson’s position. He called the mayor on Friday “looking for local input.”
Check-in or Check-out?
Discussion among Town Council members about the parks’ next steps prompted questions about further protective actions in the valley, such as shutting down hotels similar to an order enacted in Moab.
“We’ve certainly been getting a lot of public comment about people concerned about an influx of visitors here, either right now or in the coming months,” Councilman Jim Stanford said. “Right now, there appear to be visitors here.”
But as Jackson’s shoulder season approaches, it seems visitor numbers are sharply dwindling.
Weeks before their planned off-season closures, many hotels have shut down early. Meanwhile, others are seeing dismal numbers. The Lodge at Jackson Hole is “somewhere around 4% or 5% occupancy right now and we’re seeing those levels holding until mid- to late April,” Jeff Brogan, associate general manager, said. Roughly half the hotel’s rooms are typically booked this time of year. As for late April, Brogan suspects people are holding on to reservations due to the hotel’s flexible cancelation policy. Those who book directly with the hotel can cancel the day of their reservation.
One mile from the Lodge, the Wort Hotel was nearly half full on Tuesday, but that’s due to overnight crews from Delta and United airlines, said reservations manager Victoria Munoz. She said less than 3% of rooms are reserved come April.
Airline crew reservations may not hold for long. Today’s flight schedule at Jackson Hole Airport shows sweeping cancellations. On Tuesday afternoon, just two Delta Airlines flights to Salt Lake City were listed. The remaining 11, American Airlines flights to Dallas Forth-Worth, Chicago and Los Angeles, and United flights to Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and Newark were all canceled.
When it comes to curbing the number of visitors in Jackson during the COVID-19 pandemic, short-term rentals present additional questions.
Companies that manage short-term properties, like Jackson Hole Resort Lodging, have paused their operations. They are not accepting reservations at their roughly 100 short-term rental properties for arrivals before May 1. “We’re trying to do our part to support the community and flatten the curve,” marketing director Julie Calder said. And they may have to push that date back as they continue “to assess the situation.”
Rentals managed by residents are perhaps another story.
Wilson resident Mary Beth Coyne owns a valley property that is zoned for short-term renting. She said demand for her rental is anything but waning. “Though I lost March bookings due to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort closing, my condo was quickly re-booked by a group from Utah for the past few days, and last night for a month with someone seeking to escape from the San Francisco Bay area,” she wrote in an email to Jackson town councilors.
“Nothing is off the table” when it comes to future measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the valley, Muldoon told KHOL. But a ban on short-term rentals would likely require another health order from Riddell and approval from the state. For now, the mayor is finding some comfort in the health orders in place and an approaching off-season that has historically slowed the pace of tourist traffic.
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