Visiting a national park this summer? The National Park Service is not requiring visitors or staff to wear face masks. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be asked to wear one. Confused? That’s only part of the problem.
“Since the park re-opened, Montana has seen one of the biggest increases of COVID-19 cases [per capita] in any state,” says a ranger at Glacier National Park, who asked to remain anonymous. “But the park doesn’t have the authority to require visitors or staff to wear masks, so we’re just asking people nicely.”
Glacier and some other national parks closed to visitors in late March, following often conflicting guidance from the federal government that encouraged visitation and waiving entrance fees into the third week of that month. The park partially re-opened on June 8, joining what the park service says are “two-thirds” of its 419 units currently open. But, in line with anti-mask sentiments across the Trump administration, the public health plan implemented by the NPS does not make masks mandatory for park staff or visitors.
Mask wearing is currently believed to be one of the most effective tools in preventing the explosive spread of COVID-19 across the country. According to a University of Washington report, masks are currently only worn in public by 20 to 60 percent of Americans, a practice that currently has our country on track for over 200,000 total COVID-19-related deaths by November 1. But the report determines that if 95 percent of Americans were to adopt mask wearing, close to 60,000 of those deaths could be avoided.
Unfortunately, mask wearing has been heavily politicized, with President Trump notably refusing to wear one in public, barring one recent press briefing. And policies mandating their use in public places have been left up to state and local governments, and even private companies, in lieu of federal leadership on the issue.
This dynamic is playing out in miniature within our national parks, causing a uniquely problematic situation. National parks are owned by the federal government, but exist inside the boundaries of states and counties, which leaves the question of whose guidelines the parks need to follow.
Take Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which spans the Kentucky-Tennessee border, for example. Mask wearing in public places is mandated in Kentucky, but not in the park (the NPS confirmed there are no mandated rules about masks for any park), even the parts of it within that state’s boundaries. (Masks are not required in Tennessee.) Every day, people who work at or visit the park are moving between state-managed areas that require masks and NPS-governed areas.
And to make those conflicting layers of management and regulation more confusing, facilities inside parks, like lodges, restaurants, and visitor centers, are run by third-party vendors, not the NPS. Those private companies are free to make their own calls about the safety of their employees, visitors, and even NPS employees working at or passing through the facilities they manage.
One of the two biggest NPS vendors, Xanterra, which manages visitor centers, restaurants, and lodges in places like Zion and Yellowstone, implemented a mandatory mask policy across all facilities early this month. Anyone working in or passing through Xanterra properties are required to wear masks indoors and also in outdoor spaces where social distancing guidelines may be difficult to follow (think crowded overlooks and queues outside popular attractions). But the other big vendor, Delaware North, which manages facilities in sites like the Grand Canyon and Shenandoah, only requires masks to be worn by its public-facing employees. The visitors it serves, along with any NPS staff, are able to go mask-free. (A spokesperson for Delaware North clarifies that the company is following state and local ordinance, and may also require masks in common areas at some properties not subject to government-mandated orders.)
I spoke with Rick Hoeninghausen, Xanterra’s Director of Sales and Marketing at its Yellowstone National Park properties. He says that he cares about the safety of his colleagues and customers, so he sees a mask policy as a no-brainer. It’s complemented by daily temperature checks for all their staff, modified employee housing that gives each their own room, and other policies that he says the company plans to update as knowledge of the virus evolves. “We’re using the best possible practices to keep everyone safe,” says Hoeninghausen. “To the best of my knowledge, we’ve had no complaints.”
But Xanterra’s employees and guests won’t be as safe once they leave the company’s properties. Even within a single national park like Yellowstone, hotels and other facilities may be managed by a number of operators. A visitor may stay at a mask-free hotel outside the park, eat lunch at a Xanterra restaurant, and take a tour operated by a third company, then ask a park ranger for directions along the way, and all the while be unaware that they’re moving between different areas of responsibility, different rules, and different levels of safety.
The anonymous ranger in Glacier expresses frustration that the Park Service, and its bosses at the Department of the Interior, are abdicating responsibility for the safety of its workers and visitors. “They’re greatly increasing the odds that the park will have to entirely close again,” they say. “People will lose their jobs, others will die, and many businesses will go under.”
I asked NPS to justify its policies. “Cloth face coverings have been distributed and secured for all employees,” says a spokesperson. “DOI employees are encouraged to conduct daily self-monitoring for symptoms of COVID-19 and to not report to the workplace if they exhibit any symptoms or are feeling unwell.”
“While we strongly encourage social distancing and the use of face coverings when social distancing cannot be maintained, the NPS will not take actions against individuals who do not wear cloth face coverings or adhere to the guidance,” says the NPS spokesperson when asked for further clarification on its mask policies. The park service has operated without a Senate-confirmed director since the beginning of the Trump administration.
“There has been free testing for staff, but it takes more than two weeks to get the results,” says the Glacier ranger, who interacts with visitors and colleagues daily. “What’s the point?”
Without mandatory masks, without effective testing, and with a disease that may be spread by asymptomatic carriers, NPS’s abdication of duty moves this issue out of the realm of a miniature reflection of a national problem and into being a national problem on its own. National parks draw visitors from around the country and the world to travel long distances to some of our nation’s most rural, isolated areas. If COVID-19 is spreading between visitors or staff, it may foster the disease’s spread around the country and to those small communities that exist outside of the parks. Montana’s now record-high spike in cases began in early June, at the same time that Glacier and Yellowstone re-opened. On Wednesday afternoon, Governor Bullock issued a mandatory mask order for Montana.
I talked to a friend yesterday who had just driven up from Los Angeles to bring his kids to Yellowstone for the first time. “Everyone I saw was wearing a mask,” he said when he texted me a picture of his kids posing in masks with a masked park ranger. Over that ranger’s shoulder, just a few feet away, was another visitor wearing no mask at all.