Stuck at home for months on end, plans canceled and upside down, the Reyes family felt like so many others during this pandemic-blighted summer: "We were just going crazy," says Ricardo Reyes. "We had to get out."
They rented an RV, packed daughter and dog, and drove from North Carolina to a getaway they assumed would be quiet. Three days into a trip at Yellowstone National Park, they could see their need to escape was in no way unique.
"I thought it would be kind of dead, but it's a lot of people out there," Reyes says, with a nod toward a line of idling vehicles queuing up at the park's north entrance in Gardiner, Mont. "Lot of people."
After a slow start to the summer tourism season, visitation is now booming at Yellowstone and many other national parks, as Americans look to escape their coronavirus confines and spend time in the relative safety of the great outdoors. In recent weeks, the number of cars entering Yellowstone has exceeded last year's count for the same period.
The swell in tourists is a welcome relief in many gateway towns like Gardiner, where the bulk of the year's earnings are made during the summer months. But it's tinged with worry that the visitors may bring more than just their pocketbooks, especially in rural communities where medical resources are few and far between.
"It's a little concerning," says Terese Petcoff, executive director of Gardiner's Chamber of Commerce. "We only have a couple more months to make it through, so I think we're all kind of holding our breath and just hoping community spread doesn't happen."
So far, only two people who work in Yellowstone and three visitors have tested positive for COVID-19. But there are concerns that the virus could spread undetected. In Yosemite, local health officials found the coronavirus in the park's sewage — enough to make them believe that dozens may have been infected — despite no reported cases at the time.
Similar monitoring is ongoing in Yellowstone.
"I don't think I've ever been in a summer that I want to end as quickly as this one," says Cam Sholly, the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. "There's not a day that I come to work where I'm [not] fearful of multiple employees testing positive or having symptoms."
Providing essential services to people who are looking for a summer escape, while also protecting them and park employees, is like "threading a needle," Sholly says.
After closing to visitors in March because of the pandemic, Yellowstone took a step-by-step approach to reopening. Even now, some campgrounds and facilities remain closed and are expected to stay so through the summer.
Social distancing and masks are strongly encouraged at most national parks. But the National Park Service, in line with the Trump administration's own waffling over masks, has not made either mandatory.
Bear statues outside of the post office at Yellowstone's headquarters in Mammoth, Wyo., wear pink masks as a reminder, and signs on the park's trails and walkways tell people to stay at least 6 feet apart, but compliance is scattershot.
In Gardiner, just north of Yellowstone, masks are compulsory by order of Montana's governor, Steve Bullock. The mandate, put in place in mid-July, was welcomed by some of the tiny town's business owners, who were happy to be able to sidestep arguments with customers who weren't inclined to voluntarily oblige.
"Most visitors have been really understanding," Petcoff says. "But there's one in every crowd."
At Parks Fly Shop, just up the steep banks from the raft-speckled Yellowstone River, store owner Richard Parks gives muted angling advice through a trout-patterned neck gaiter.
At 77 years old, "an official old fud," as he puts it, Parks knows he's more vulnerable to COVID-19 than most of the fly fishing guides he hires in his shop. He gets nervous, he says, when someone tries to come in without a mask or when the shop gets packed with people perusing the selection of flies.
But with the slow start to the tourism season and with wife's bed and breakfast running at half capacity this summer to the point where nobody has to share a bathroom, working in the shop is a risk he's willing to take.
"This is what we have to live on for a fairly long winter," he says.
There are many in town, Parks says, who would just as soon not have tourists come at all. There aren't many confirmed cases in Park County, and they would prefer it stay that way.
Farther north, outside Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet Nation closed off road access to that park's east entrances out of an abundance of caution. Native Americans are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, in part because of conditions created by chronic underfunding and mismanagement of their health programs.
Tim Davis, chair of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, told Montana Public Radio that he knows the decision will impact the $110 million-a-year tourism industry in Glacier County.
"We're not, again, doing this based on economics," he told MTPR. "It's based on science and health."
The closures have led to overcrowding and congestion at other parts of Glacier National Park, problems that aren't new to the coronavirus.
Barring a major outbreak, nobody in or outside Yellowstone National Park expects a similar closure. Some national parks have implemented reservation systems to limit crowd sizes during the pandemic, but the geography of Yellowstone alone, with five entrances, would make it hard to do something similar.
Parks has his own ideas for how to limit crowding. As a fly-fishing guide, he usually gets paid to give advice, but this bit is free:
"Don't get jammed up in a mob," he says. "I know Old Faithful is going off, but you can buy a picture. You can't buy your life back."
NOEL KING, HOST:
After months of being closed, most national parks are open again. And lots of people are going despite the pandemic. People whose livelihoods depend on the parks are weighing the risks of all this. Here's NPR's Nathan Rott.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Standing outside the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont., you could tick through about two-dozen state license plates in the time that it takes you to drink a coffee. That is normal in the summer. What's not normal is the people driving those cars doing stuff like this.
LYNN HUNTER: We rented a van. And it has a Florida license tag. But I put a sign in the back window that said we are not from Florida (laughter).
ROTT: Lynn Hunter (ph) and her family are from Kansas. Hear that? Kansas. Even her grandson Noah (ph) will tell you.
NOAH: We're not from Florida.
NOAH: Right, grandma?
HUNTER: Right. And we don't want anybody to think we are.
ROTT: Same goes for just about any place it's been in the news recently for having spikes in COVID cases. Families like the Hunters are driving to national parks like Yellowstone in droves right now, keen to escape from wherever they are and trying to salvage a summer of stress. And they know that it comes with risks.
HUNTER: We were scared to come.
ROTT: Oh, really?
HUNTER: We've been planning it for a long time.
ROTT: So here they are at one of the country's first national parks. And they're happy they did. Thing is, the same is true for about 1.5 million other people since mid-May. Ricardo Reyes and his family are from North Carolina.
RICARDO REYES: I'm amazed. I thought it would be kind of dead a little bit. But it's a lot of people out there.
ROTT: Over the last couple of weeks, the number of cars entering through the Gardiner entrance at Yellowstone National Park are higher than they were at the same time last year. Restaurants have long waits. Rafting companies are struggling to find enough workers. And fly-fishing guides like Richard Parks, owner of Parks' Fly Shop, says, too bad, anglers. There's just as many people casting for Yellowstone brown or cutthroat trout as there's ever been before.
RICHARD PARKS: I think we're getting some people that are just refugeeing out of those places.
ROTT: That's great for his bottom line. Parks says he makes between 80 and 90% of his annual earnings between June and September. But at 77 years old, it's also a bit worrisome.
PARKS: I'm, you know, an official old fud that is one of the people inherently more vulnerable than others. And I get a little nervous when I get some mob of people running in, no mask, no apparent care of how many people they should have in the place.
ROTT: But that's the dance he's having to do. Yellowstone brings in more than $600 million to its surrounding communities every year, most of that in the summer. Nationally, visitorship (ph) to national parks generates more than $40 billion annually. And so even while there are concerns, particularly around rural parks like Yellowstone, that outsiders may be bringing in more than just their pocketbooks during the pandemic, it's a risk that many are willing to take. And so far in Yellowstone, it seems to be paying off.
TERESE PETCOFF: Definitely good for the business community. I think that, you know, in May, they may have thought that they might not make it through the end of the year. And now they're seeing record-breaking numbers.
ROTT: Terese Petcoff is the executive director of Gardner's Chamber of Commerce. So far, she says, only two park employees and three visitors have tested positive for COVID. She's sure some have gone undetected. But the numbers thus far are encouraging.
PETCOFF: Typically, visitation goes way slower in October. So we only have a couple more months to make it through. So I think everyone is kind of holding their breath and just hoping that community spread doesn't happen.
CAM SHOLLY: I don't think I've ever been in a summer that I wanted to end as quickly as this one.
ROTT: Cam Sholly is the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.
SHOLLY: There's not a day that I come to work where I'm not fearful of multiple employees testing positive or having symptoms.
ROTT: Yellowstone, like many national parks around the country, is limiting its services this summer to try and protect employees and visitors, closing campgrounds in some cases or visitor centers. Social distancing and masks are strongly encouraged. Outside of the post office at Yellowstone's headquarters, two masked bear statues serve as a reminder. But the National Park Service overall has not mandated face coverings. Sholly says most visitors are doing a good job of protecting themselves and others, but not always. So he's urging people...
SHOLLY: If you're sick or you have symptoms or you're not sure, do us all a favor and don't come to the park.
ROTT: Or anywhere else for that matter.
Nathan Rott, NPR News, Gardiner, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.