COVID-19 confusion? National parks don't require face masks, even if their states do

Curtis Tate

Robert Cartright and his girlfriend noticed something right away when they arrived at Glacier National Park in Montana on Saturday: The park's trails were packed, yet few people wore face masks.

The park reopened in June after a nearly three-month closure during the coronavirus pandemic. The National Park Service encourages but does not require park visitors to wear masks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear them to prevent the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 5.7 million Americans and killed more than 178,000.

At national parks, which have become a welcome outdoor escape for Americans who stayed home for weeks or months, their use is far from consistent.

"We had no idea how bad it would be here; otherwise, we would have reconsidered vacationing in Glacier," said Cartright, an IT specialist who lives in Portland, Oregon. "There are no mask reminders at the trails, only at the front gate."

According to NPS data, Glacier saw nearly 50% fewer visitors last month than it did in July 2019, which may be partly because the entrances on the eastern side of the park remain closed for the season. Other national parks are seeing more visitors than they did a year ago.

Yellowstone,  which reaches into Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, saw a 2% increase in July.

Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, a few hours west of Washington, saw 39% more visitors in July than it did a year ago. America's most-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, saw nearly 7% more visitors last month.

Updated visitor statistics are not available for all 419 sites managed by the National Park Service because the pandemic sent many employees home on furlough, according to spokeswoman Sally Mayberry. Other sites remain closed or partially closed, particularly those that are indoors.

Visiting a reopened national park after lockdown? What to know before you go

Great Smoky Mountains National Park reached a record-high visitation of 12.5 million people in 2019. Crowded parking lots in Cades Cove show how popular the park has become.

Some lawmakers in Washington want the Department of the Interior to require national park visitors and employees to wear masks.

Several Democrats in the House of Representatives wrote to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt this month asking for the park service to adhere to CDC and state guidelines on masks and social distancing.

"We urge you to require visitors and employees to wear masks outdoors when they cannot maintain proper social distance," wrote the lawmakers, including the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, and the chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Deb Haaland of New Mexico. "When employees and visitors are in buildings, they should be required to wear masks."

The lawmakers cited confusion over state and local guidelines that don't match the National Park Service's. For example, Independence National Historical Park – home of the Liberty Bell – is in Pennsylvania, where a statewide mandate requires face coverings in public indoor spaces.

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area straddles Kentucky and Tennessee. The former has a mask requirement, and the latter does not (though some counties do).

Grand County, Utah, and the city of Springdale, Utah, approved mask requirements in July. Those requirements affect visitors to Zion, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

"Conflicting guidance between NPS-governed areas and localities that require masks threatens the safety of park employees, visitors and those who live closest to our public lands," the lawmakers wrote.

Once a visitor has entered a national park in a state that doesn't mandate masks, do they need to wear one? 

Mayberry said the National Park Service's guidance, which encourages visitors to follow CDC and state and local guidance, is the same across all its parks.

Cartright said hikers weren't the only ones disregarding public health guidance about masks at Glacier National Park. He said the hotel where he and his girlfriend stayed was the only coronavirus-conscious place they've observed. He said employees at restaurants handled food without gloves or masks, which would violate a statewide order.

The couple changed their plans to include less popular hikes and wider trails. Instead of eating out for the remainder of their trip, the rest of their time , they bought their own groceries. And they made another decision.

"After this trip, we aren’t planning on any vacations until a vaccine is in place," he said.

Staying Apart Together:  Wisdom and distractions for coping with a world changed by coronavirus