Glacier National Park announced it will temporarily close, as of 5 p.m. Friday, March 27, in coordination with the state of Montana, Flathead County, Glacier County, and the Blackfeet Tribe.

“We’re closed until we all feel that it is safe to reopen,” Superintendent Jeff Mow said in an interview with Montana Free Press as the park closed.

Local and state health officials had raised health concerns about visitors traveling to the park from across the country and potentially transporting COVID-19, Mow said. The park receives around 3 million visitors each year. In January and February, the park recorded about 31,000 visits.

Additionally, the park will put most seasonal hiring on hold. The park generally employs about 250 people, he said. Mow said he expects concessionaires, which employ an additional 1,200 seasonal employees, to put those jobs on hold as well.

“We’re not in a position to bring in hundreds of employees from around the country and the world at this point in time,” Mow said. “We’re all in a wait-and-see mode. It wouldn’t make sense to bring people in from all over the country and put them in isolation for 14 days before they start. It just doesn’t quite make sense.”

After U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced on March 18 that national parks would be free to visit, the park received about 800 vehicles on Saturday and Sunday, March 21-22, Mow said. With the park still in “winter mode,” there wasn’t much space for the visitors to spread out, leading to crowded areas, Mow said.

“Those are remarkable levels of visitation for this time of year. The parking lot at Lake McDonald, even though the lot wasn’t plowed, the parking came close to exceeding the busiest summer days,” Mow said. “It was pretty clear people weren’t doing a good job of social distancing.”

Mow said he thinks most of the visitors were local.

“The rangers said most of the plates were Montana plates, which could be rental cars,” Mow said. “But in reality, with [Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort] closed last weekend, and listening to the Chamber of Commerce talk about occupancy rates in the valley, I don’t think there’s a lot of destination visitors around.”

Mow said most park employees, himself included, have been working from home.

“We’re busier than ever, trying to stay connected with our employees. It’s a very strange time, a very stressful time. It’s been a lot of phone calls,” Mow said.

Most of his focus now is on the summer season.

“We’re finding alternate ways to think about what this summer could look like,” Mow said. “It’s really hard to predict the future. We’ll be doing a lot of planning and looking at different scenarios of, if we do get the opportunity to open the park, what will that look like?”

Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.