As the busy summer season gets underway in various tourism hotspots across the state, Glacier National Park’s eastern neighbor is taking a more cautious approach. Concerns about COVID-19 have left the Blackfeet Nation slow to reopen its reservation to tourists.
For more than 25 years, Blackfeet tribal member Darrel Norman has set up dozens of tipis near his home on the Blackfeet Reservation. He provides guests from all over the world a unique place to stay while exploring neighboring Glacier National Park.
Now, as he opens the door to his home art gallery, he puts on his mask. Norman’s gallery is right inside of his house and is full of traditional and contemporary artwork done in a Blackfeet style.
It's normally bustling with tourists this time of year, but with the tribe maintaining a 14-day quarantine order and lodging restrictions on non-residents, it’s empty. And it’s unclear whether the tribe will extend those restrictions before they’re set to expire June 30.
“Bookings are still coming in, and we can't give any ... all we can say is we’re closed through June,” Norman said. “And then we doubt that ... Well, we're not going to open up the tipi camp after that. Costs, just all the things considered, would probably not be the wisest thing to do.”
Tribal leaders say the population here is vulnerable to COVID-19, and the restrictions have helped spare residents from the pandemic. While Norman hopes to salvage his season by mostly selling artwork, he understands the tribe’s caution.
“We don't want to be the ones … who bring in the first case,” he said.
About a half a mile away from Glacier’s currently closed east entrance sits Johnson's of St. Mary. The restaurant, campground and RV park is perched on a small hill, giving its guests a lake-lined view of the Park’s eastern edge.
Tribal member and owner Nathan St. Goddard said local leaders aren’t listening to the economic concerns of businesses like his.
“I mean, our authority is the Tribal Council, and right now they want to stay closed,” Goddard said sitting at one of his restaurant’s many empty tables. “And I think it’s really frustrating on our end because I personally think that social-distancing enforcement is more realistic than total shutdown.”
Tribal leaders and park officials are negotiating when the east gate of the park will open. Goddard says if it doesn’t open this year, he’ll likely have to shutter the business his grandfather started 70 years ago.
While things on the reservation are at a standstill, communities on the west side of the park are welcoming back tourists. On Friday, cars piled up at the gate near West Glacier, and park rangers let eager visitors from all over the country know most available parking had filled up by 9:30 that morning.
Flathead County took in about half of the non-resident spending related to Glacier National Park in 2018, according to University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. But roughly $110 million was spent in Glacier County, which encompasses the Blackfeet Reservation.
Tribally owned businesses say the tribe needs to either provide economic relief or open up back up to tourists in order for businesses to survive.
The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council approved a phase one reopening plan June 4, which lifted a stay-at-home order as well as non-essential travel restrictions.
Robert DesRosier with the Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command said the Council has since amended the plan. Stay-at-home and travel restrictions were put back in place, but with flexibility for approved activities including going to bars, restaurants and worship gatherings. The tribe has not published official details on its updated phase one plan.
Some are businesses owners told MTPR they are frustrated with what they call the tribal council’s lack of transparency. They want the tribe to specify what it will take for visitors to be welcomed back onto the reservation without the quarantine or testing requirement.
Glacier National Park attracted three million people last year, and some of those visitors traveled onto the Blackfeet Reservation.
“It’s the million-dollar question as far as I’m concerned,” DesRosier said. “I can't predict the future, nor will I try. I can’t tell you that we’re going to open up fifth of July, sixth of July, fourth of July: It’s just impossible for me to say that.”
DesRosier understands the tribe’s decisions are causing economic pain, but said it’s his job to look at this as an issue of protecting human life and not an economic crisis.
Free COVID-19 testing is available on Wednesday in Heart Butte and Thursday in East Glacier.