You come to Yosemite to be in the great outdoors where transmission is extremely rare. Why does Covid still matter? Why are there limited services? The short version:
- Covid creates special challenges for hiring and housing a large seasonal staff in the normal congregate living situations
- Welcoming visitors from all over the country means that even when local infection rates are low, there are still potentially a lot of infected people in the park
- Not all outdoor recreation happens outdoors as traditionally people would be crowded into shuttles, bathrooms, grocery store lines and so forth.
Agree with them or not, these considerations and probably many others have led the National Park Service to implement the day-use reservation system and limit some other services.
Typical housing in Yosemite involves two or three employees to a room. Even in “good” housing where an employee has his or her own room, it is in most cases with shared bathrooms, showers, kitchens and commons areas. In short, it is “congregate living” like a college dorm with similar complications of a fluid, seasonal population coming from all over the country and arriving in large numbers at the start of the season.
The housing guidelines for the park require single-occupancy rooms for the duration of 2021. This means a substantial reduction in the work force and that makes for a reduction in services.
The upshot of this is that the park will be operating with far fewer employees than in a normal year. That means a reduction in services.
2. Visitors from Everywhere
Our second challenge is that our visitors come from all over. County health officials have been monitoring sewage from Yosemite since early in the pandemic. Before we had any cases reported among park staff and residents, we had detectable Covid in the sewage coming out of Yosemite Valley suggesting that as many as 170 people present in the park over the July 4, 2020, weekend were infected with Covid. All of which is to say that our small rural community is exceptionally porous and is a true mixing pot for people from low-Covid and high-Covid areas.
3. Not all “outdoor recreation” takes place outdoors
People think in terms of what it’s like out on the trails. Sure, trails are sometimes very crowded, but all the research shows that outdoor transmission is exceedingly rare, especially from casual contact like passing someone on the trail. So why the worry?
Most of the concern comes from the parts of a traditional Yosemite trip that are not outdoors: bathrooms, the massive lines at the Village Store, crowded restaurants and so forth. One solution might be to simply close these facilities, but we saw from the government shutdown what happens when people are left to fend for themselves in the park. It was not a viable situation even in the low season.
4. No Shuttles
For various reasons (staffing, crowding), the shuttle system did not operate in 2020 or 2021. That means it takes fewer visitors to create traffic jams. During an April 8, 2021, call with the community, the superintendent said that over Easter weekend, they saw one-hour response times for emergency services to get to Curry Village. This is a 5-minute bike ride, but already traffic was so tight that it took one hour for an ambulance to get through. If we don’t have shuttles, we cannot safely have “normal” visitations levels.
It may seem that there should be no restrictions on people going hiking and therefore no limitations on Yosemite visitation as a result of Covid, but as you can see, it is a complicated situation.
Bette Davis said it best in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” But hopefully, some of the measures put in place will make it less bumpy. In general, those visitors who come find it to be a vastly superior experience with the reduced numbers being a more than adequate compensation for the reduced services!