Surging tourism is straining this Yellowstone gateway town

Amid rising COVID-19 cases and unconcerned tourists, the people of Jackson, Wyoming, are struggling to keep their town solvent—and safe.

A few months ago, residents of the valley of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, worried the summer tourism season might be a dud.

Now 40,000 visitors a day stream through Jackson, a town in the valley and a gateway to neighboring Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. While that visitor count isn’t too different from previous years, July saw a string of days where the number of visitors was up over 2019 levels, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guidea far cry from earlier this year. Closed from March 24 to May 18, the parks are now seeing hundreds of thousands of tourists a month.

Jackson is not alone. Mountain towns, beach communities, and vacation destinations throughout the country are facing an influx of visitors—many traveling from virus hotspots—in the middle of a rapidly worsening pandemic. Anecdotal accounts in Jackson suggest many tourists are surprised to hear COVID-19 exists in the area at all, having mistaken picturesque mountain vistas and wildflower-blanketed meadows for safety.

Now Jackson is on the front lines of a national dilemma: How do you maintain tourist-town economies while keeping people safe from coronavirus?

Balancing act

RVs with license plates from coronavirus hotspots like Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California meander through town. Tourists clamor for photos under elk antler arches. But while tourism infuses much-needed cash into local coffers, it also potentially exposes residents to coronavirus.

In May, a mass community testing event of 1,346 Jackson residents turned up negative results. Less than two months later, the valley’s case numbers have tripled in a single week, reports the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

“While visitors likely played some role in reintroducing COVID-19 after we had effectively eliminated it from Teton County this spring,” says Dr. Travis Riddell, Teton District public health officer, “our contact tracing data indicate that locals and seasonal workers are now efficiently transmitting it amongst themselves.”

Local leaders are doing what they can to attempt to limit the spread of infection. On July 3, the Jackson Town Council passed an emergency ordinance requiring masks to be worn in town; on July 20, Riddell issued a county-wide mask order after weeks of securing state approval. The town tourism board implemented a “Clean, Careful, Connected” campaign, and the valley’s chamber of commerce has handed out 122,000 masks so far.

Stores are open, but there’s a strange energy in the air—and it’s not necessarily a good one.

“The stress is unbelievable”

Sean Love, who owns the Town Square souvenir shop Jackson Trading Company, adopted a mask policy even before ordinances first required them. He and his employees—many of whom are students—faced daily aggression from customers, and some workers faced racist verbal abuse. “[It’s] almost as if they’re on vacation to find somewhere where they can go pick a fight,” Love says.

Brianna Moteberg, owner of Altitude women’s clothing boutique, says she and her employees faced so many aggressive encounters that she started closing the shop at 6 p.m. because she was fearful of alcohol-exaggerated violence later in the evening. “The stress is unbelievable,” Moteberg says. She’s also struggling to source items as suppliers cancel orders, opting to ship their products—limited due to factory closures—to larger contracts rather than small boutiques.

The tension in the community has been so high, the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce hosted a webinar to offer businesses and employees guidance on how to defuse hostile encounters. Both Love and Moteberg say the mask ordinances have helped reduce aggressive interactions, since people are now more used to the requirement.

Constant vigilance, aggressive visitors, and fears of contracting the virus—or spreading it to loved ones—all take their toll. Love describes being in “‘fight or flight’ pretty much all the time.” As owner of a nonessential business, Love encourages his employees to stay home if they’re “just too down” to work.

Retail interactions can be fairly quick, but wildlife tour companies spend more time with clients. Taylor Phillips, owner of Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, has chosen to provide private tours rather than combine parties. He says many of his clients this summer are coming from coronavirus hotspots like Arizona, Texas, and Florida.

People who are “concerned with COVID-19, they’re probably not traveling,” Phillips says. As a result, his clients “may not necessarily be inclined to wear masks and to social distance, which is a little disconcerting. But it is what it is.”

Coronavirus-related closures the “new normal”

For local businesses, “closed” signs that once indicated a plumbing issue or a family emergency now often mean an employee was exposed to COVID-19.

Although businesses aren’t typically required to shut their doors when an employee tests positive, some choose to shutter for a deep clean. Others are forced to close when too many employees are quarantined. Many businesses rely on international workers with J-1 visas to bolster their summer workforce, and closed borders mean even fewer employees this year.

The Jackson Hole News & Guide maintains a list of local restaurants and bars closing or reducing service levels “due to concerns regarding the novel coronavirus.” As of July 26, roughly 1 in 8 local restaurants were closed or offering reduced service.

After two employees became infected, Snake River Brewing closed for over two weeks to deep clean the facility and provide testing for employees. “The whole thing keeps us up at night,” says owner Ted Staryk. “I want [our staff] to feel they’re safe, and I want our customers to feel that way, too. It’s very difficult in this day and age.”

Ryan Haworth, owner of Teton Tiger in Jackson and Teton Thai in nearby Driggs, Idaho, closed both restaurants for a time due to staff members testing positive. Haworth says they’ve been following proper guidelines from the beginning, so it was disconcerting to have employees contract the virus.

“It was like almost a feeling like we did something wrong,” Haworth says. “But we knew we had to do the right thing [by temporarily closing]. We’re committed to keeping the community safe.”

Time to pivot

The pandemic is affecting small family businesses like Morales Home Made (better known as Rosa’s Tamales). In summer, the Morales family typically sells tamales, fruit cups, and shaved ice at local farmers markets. Although one market disallows prepared foods this year, another permits the Morales family to do business with masks, social distancing, and other precautions.

Juan Morales is using the extra time to focus on his dried fruit company, Naughty Fruit, which is sold in stores year-round. He’ll launch a Kickstarter campaign in August. He and his family “could quit and stop and go do landscaping or housekeeping or whatever,” Morales says, but “that would be like giving up on our goals. […] We just have to make it work and figure it out.”

When businesses were abruptly forced to shutter earlier this year, Zarina and Eric Sakai worried their restaurant, The Phoenix and the Dragon, wouldn’t survive. They used the lull as an opportunity to transform their dining room to a retail space for the launch of a new fitness and lifestyle brand that sells products in-store and online—alongside their takeout restaurant service and outdoor eating area. They’re hoping this new venture will see them through.

“Starting a new business during this time—it’s a little crazy,” Zarina Sakai says. “I’m a fighter.”

Elliott R. Alston has also had to pivot in recent months. Before COVID-19, Alston—aka DJ E.R.A.—was working full-time as a DJ, but he doesn’t feel it’s responsible to play events at the moment. He’s forgoing his typical summer lineup of corporate events, weddings, and county fairs in favor of his work as a finish carpenter.

Alston, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, questions the morality of asking employees to risk their health by interacting with customers. “Our young community is getting crushed, our workforce is getting crushed by this right now,” he says. “Is it socially responsible to be putting your employees in the line of fire like that?”

What’s next?

There are no easy answers. Riddell notes that shutting down the town—again—would also cause public health problems. “Economic disasters are public health disasters,” Riddell says. “We know that when there are economic downturns, where there is an increase in poverty, an increase in uninsured numbers—that has direct health effects.”

Kate Sollitt, executive director of the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board, says it’s hard to predict what comes next. “I wish I had a crystal ball,” Sollitt says, noting visitation projections look strong through mid-August. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the fall. None of us really know.”

As tourist towns grapple with the summer season, they also look ahead to fall and winter. Hiking and dining alfresco are appealing on warm summer days—but colder weather will undoubtedly usher people indoors. What will the coming months bring for Jackson and other tourist towns? From coast to coast, local leaders and business owners deal with these uncertainties—while doing their best to plan for the future.

Kristen Pope is a freelance writer living near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

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