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The town of Mariposa. Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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As Tourists Flock to National Parks, Nearby Restaurants Brace for the Coronavirus

While campers can return home after a trip, they might leave COVID-19 behind in small communities under-equipped to fight the pandemic

Nick Mancall-Bitel is an editor at Eater overseeing travel coverage and the international maps program.

The permanent population of Boulder, Utah, is less than 300. “We are considered to be one of the most remote towns in the lower 48,” says Blake Spalding, who co-owns and co-chefs with Jen Castle at Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, located at the Boulder Mountain Lodge. Every summer — well, almost every summer — travelers visit the town as they pass through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and enjoy a destination meal.

Spalding and Castle have worked to save the monument from the Trump administration, which cut it in half in 2017 to allow for extractive industry. But recent national efforts to reopen the country during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic pose an entirely new danger: The crush of tourists looking to leave virus epicenters could spread infection to towns like Boulder, putting restaurants that serve those travelers in a difficult position.

“It was unbelievable what happened here over Memorial Day weekend. I’ve never seen so many people. It felt really uncomfortable,” Spalding says. Hell’s Backbone was closed that weekend as the team worked on kitchen renovations and a patio to allow for more outdoor dining. A Payment Protection Program loan, as well as an online shop and the restaurant’s regenerative agriculture farm, have kept the operation afloat, but financially Spalding and Castle have to reopen the restaurant somehow, even if doing so imperils the shop and farm too. “We love our guests,” Spalding says, “but it feels weird to be kind of scared of them.”

It isn’t illogical for travelers to want to leave big cities, where infection rates are high, to visit wilderness destinations, where infection rates have generally stayed low until now. The virus doesn’t spread as well outdoors, making national parks seem like convenient escapes. But while campers can return home after a trip, they might leave the virus behind in small communities under-equipped to fight the pandemic. In remote towns like Boulder, which is an inholding within the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument, it can be hard to acquire PPE, like masks and gloves, and other essential equipment. If a restaurant runs out, it could be a week before the UPS truck shows up with more. “There is a clinic that’s 45 minutes from here, but our health care situation, like most rural places, is pretty modest,” Spalding says.

And restaurants in so-called “gateway communities” near national parks are gearing up for a summer of more visitors. Despite warnings from the CDC about the potential summer death toll and a National Park Service campaign dissuading would-be parkgoers, campers are still flocking to public sites after being cooped up for months. RV sales are up, and Airbnb has seen a boom in vacation rentals too. According to an April survey by Kampgrounds of America, nearly half of travelers who canceled travel plans due to COVID-19 have decided to camp instead, and 41 percent of campers said they were following through on planned trips.

As traffic ramps up, tension is also rising within park communities between businesses that rely on tourism and locals who don’t want to be exposed to visitors. Charles Tanner owns K-Bar Pizza and Two Bit Saloon in Gardiner, Montana, directly across the street from the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. He says that when the pandemic first began to spread, locals stopped coming to his restaurants, even for takeout, because they feared interacting with tourists.

In 2019, tourists spent $500 million and supported 7,000 jobs around Yellowstone in towns like Gardiner, and they spent $21 billion total in park communities across the country. Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many parks to close in March, local businesses have been ailing, and year-over-year sales are still relatively low for most. A second wave of infections could force states to close later in the year too, forcing some restaurants to reopen despite the risks.

“The parks are national treasures, but for our community they’re the reason we’re here in the first place,” says Fred Peightal, owner of Cafe Genevieve in Jackson, Wyoming, just outside of Grand Teton National Park. Peightal is concerned about welcoming visitors from elsewhere, but he doesn’t see any other option, especially since the restaurant has mostly been closed since July 2019 due to a fire. “One way or the other we’re going to have to do it, or we’re going to close up shop,” he says.

Woman standing behind restaurant counter wearing a mask and cap that reads “Yosemite.”
A worker at Yosemite National Park’s Base Camp Grill after it re-opened in June 2020.
Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Peightal estimates most restaurants in Jackson do 60 to 70 percent of their yearly business during the summer high season, from July to September. While the high season varies between parks and regions, remaining closed during those critical months can easily sink a business. “If we lose our summer,” Peightal says, “I don’t think we’d make it through another year. Especially if [COVID-19] comes back in the fall and we lose our winter. It could be devastating for just about every restaurant in town.” For seasonal businesses that don’t open during the winter at all, the pressure is even higher to make the best of the warmer months.

Chef Ian Boden saw a peak in domestic tourists when he opened his first restaurant in 2007, just before the Great Recession, which inspired many people to travel and spend locally. Boden expects to see that happen again at his current restaurant, the Shack, just outside of Shenandoah National Park in Staunton, Virginia. The restaurant offers a feasible destination for folks from D.C., Philadelphia, and New York, without a flight, which made Boden hesitant to reopen even as Virginia began allowing businesses to do so in May.

“Knowing that 80 percent of our clientele was coming from out of town, from large markets with higher infection rates than us, it was a concern for me for my staff,” Boden says. A positive review in the Washington Post earlier this year could attract even more citydwellers to the Shack. “That’s part of the reason I feel it’s irresponsible for us to open back up, even [serving food] outside. As soon as we open back up, I know our dining room will be full of people from out of town again. I would feel fucking horrible if one of my staff members got sick because someone from D.C. came to Staunton.”

Evidence from parks’ first wave of visitors isn’t heartening. A few days before Yellowstone even opened, Tanner noticed travelers arriving in the area from Seattle, LA, and San Francisco. But he also noted one glaring absence.

“I didn’t notice any tourists with masks,” he says. “I might have expected some tourists who ordered just to go because they didn’t want to be in a public space, but I think we’re getting quite the opposite, the people that are very much happy looking for normalcy.”

Tanner guesses excited, early travelers are simply less concerned about infection, but they’ve already revealed a deeper vulnerability in gateway communities. Rural areas seem safe compared to cities. Visitors don’t feel as much pressure to protect themselves — or locals — from infection as they might in their hometowns. Nearly half of respondents in the KOA survey said they consider camping the safest form of travel, but that doesn’t mean travelers take precautions.

Jeannie Allen is business and operations manager at the Log Cabin Pancake House in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She suffers from asthma, which has made her especially cautious around the maskless visitors she has seen walking around.

“When you go out on vacation, you think you’re immune to it because this area doesn’t have a lot of cases,” she says. “You don’t have to worry because you’re in Gatlinburg. You don’t have to worry about anything when you’re in Gatlinburg. You can walk up and down the street at night and it’s safe. I think a lot of people have that thought in their head, that it’s okay here, but we’re not immune to anything.”

Tanner is confident he can provide that security. He’s working with the health department to test and monitor his staff to control any risk of infection. “Anybody who’s going through the trouble to open, especially in these gateway communities, is being extra precautious because we need that revenue so badly,” he argues, adding that every business owner in town feels pressure to follow health guidelines to the letter.

Many locals in Gardiner have come around since the state began looking at recovery, but the divide reveals how difficult it can be to mitigate risk in vulnerable communities near national vacation destinations. Decisions to relax precautions in one area inevitably affect surrounding areas, just as reopening a single business can affect a whole town. “It’s like opening a peeing section in a pool,” Boden says. Tension may only build as traffic — and risk — increase in parks.

If there’s one silver lining, it can be found inside the parks themselves, which have flourished without the crush of tourists. Congress capitalized on public interest in outdoor recreation to push through a bipartisan bill to grant the parks greater funding, too. Peightal says some of his restaurant workers might even enjoy the park themselves this year if traffic remains down.

“I don’t know that we’ll ever recover financially from this,” Spalding admits, “but I also don’t know that we won’t if we never try.” And the ideal of a park restaurant seems worth fighting for. “I’ve really seen the power of a lovingly prepared meal and jaw-droppingly beautiful wilderness. It’s a combination that can actually be transformational.”

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