GARDINER, Mont. - Montana's gates to Yellowstone National Park will reopen on June 1; and while business owners are eager to get back to normal, there are still major health concerns for the community due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The answer to whether residents are ready for Yellowstone's north entrance to reopen depends on who you ask. Most of the Gardiner's businesses rely on tourists that they have no guarantee will visit this summer. Controversy is brewing as Gardiner residents decide which route is the best way forward.
A major question health officials and residents are trying to answer: how will tiny towns that don't have any kind of major healthcare infrastructure keep their residents healthy when they have thousands of people coming in from bigger cities?
Gallatin City-County health officer Matt Kelley says that at this point health officials are not ready for the park to reopen. Kelley adds that the best way to prepare small towns is with more extensive testing and the ability to quarantine and isolate infected people - both of which they need more state funding to accomplish.
A tourist-focused shop, Yellowstone Perk, is staying alive because the owners also run the Gardiner Pharmacy - one of the few consistently profitable businesses in the middle of a pandemic.
The attached gift shop, though, is empty. The owner says that on a weekday in mid-May, they'd normally have 50 people in the store at one time. But by Wednesday afternoon, they'd seen only one tourist that day.
"Right now, we would be overrun," says manager and pharmacy technician Bethany Potts. "You wouldn't be able to interview me because our store would be full. So, it's totally different than what we've been used to - which then affects staffing, it affects jobs, it affects kind of our whole community."
Some Gardiner residents aren't worried about the park reopening; instead, they're concerned that it might close again due to foolish tourist behavior that threatens the health and safety of others.
One street over, Wonderland Cafe and Lodge has felt a one-two punch as a business that relies on both eating out and sleeping in a new place: two things that people haven't been doing a lot of lately. But ownership at the business is taking a glass-half-full approach to the pandemic and reopening.
"There's always a silver lining with every bad situation," says owner Stacey Orsted, who admits the business is struggling financially. "It's always an opportunity to always look at your practices, make sure everybody is ready for a plan B to stay safe, to make sure everything is completely clean. There's a good to-go business that we never focused on before, maybe always focusing on those that can't get out."
Both businesses - in a true Montana spirit - are relying on Montanans to keep them afloat. They hope that because they'll have a smaller influx of out-of-staters and international tourists coming in over the summer that Montanans can have the chance to explore (or re-explore) Yellowstone and support local businesses in the meantime.