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 six 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 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 Mr. 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 percent 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 Representative Raúl Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
On May 15, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, Mont., 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 Ms. Bacon, recalling the out-of-state license plates she saw. She estimated that 1 percent 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, Wyo., 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, Wyo. The mandate did not apply to federal land partly because of confusion about whether he had jurisdiction. Dr. 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 Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 15, 2020
Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
What’s the best material for a mask?
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
- A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
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Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
- Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
- A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How can I protect myself while flying?
- If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
The park, which employs up to 14 emergency medical technicians, has one ambulance and the closest hospital is more than an hour away in Alpine, Texas, a city of 6,000. Given those vulnerabilities, Mr. 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.
“There is a huge burden on me to make as wise a decision as I can,” Mr. 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 chairwoman 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 Ms. 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,” Ms. 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 work force 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 Mr. 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 percent 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.”
Elizabeth Williamson reported from Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz., and Sarah Mervosh from Canton, Ohio. Mitch Smith contributed reporting from Chicago.