A full year into the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses on or near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation are waiting to hear if the east gates of Glacier National Park will reopen. MTPR’s Aaron Bolton reports on how the Blackfeet Tribe is navigating the upcoming tourism season as businesses push to reopen their doors to travelers.
Blackfeet Department of Revenue Director and Incident Command team member Kimberly Boy spent much of the last year on the phone with angry or crying business owners taking the economic brunt of the Blackfeet Reservation’s shutdown.
"It was a lot. I really feel for our business owners. I know that this is their livelihood. This is the way they put food on the table for their families and whatnot. I’m not impervious to that fact."
Last summer the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council closed roads leading to and from the east gates of Glacier National Park to limit summer crowds and COVID-19’s ability to spread.
"I feel like there’s a higher calling, a higher standard that I needed to be held to, and I did, as far as what I could in my capacity to keep our people safe," Boy says.
State and federal analyses show Native Americans have died from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate compared to people who are white. The virus killed nearly 50 Blackfeet tribal members, a fact Boy has kept in the back of her head as she’s had these hard conversations with business owners. But as vaccines become more available, some local businesses are calling to reopen the area to tourists.
John Ray is the owner of the Circle R Motel in East Glacier.
"We can’t make another year," he says. "So, it’s either open and try and make a year of it, or stay closed and put it for sale or lose it to our mortgage."
Ray says many potential customers are opting to book with businesses near the west entrance, which was open last year as he watched cars drive by.
Last week, the Blackfeet tribe announced the reservation is moving to phase three of its reopening plan, opening businesses, including restaurant dine-in and bars, to 50 percent capacity. It was a hopeful sign for tourism-related businesses. However, the flow of tourists and the money they bring largely depends on whether the east entrances to Glacier National Park open. Park and tribal officials have been in talks about opening the east gates, but have yet to announce if they will open this year.
Jeremy Sage with the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research says while the east side struggled last year, the open west side boomed.
"We did see west gate traffic records from all of August through December, really concentrating visitation to Glacier National Park on that west side, as much as it also then creates a hardship on the east side there."
Sage says the full economic impact of last year’s closure on the east side of Glacier isn’t yet known, but in the summer of 2019, visitors on or near the bordering Blackfeet Reservation spent $120 million on everything from lodging to groceries.
Sage says it’s safe to assume the impact of the closure was big, but he says the good news is demand for national parks is expected to be extremely high this year. East side businesses say that demand could help them get back on their feet.
Susan Higgins is a Blackfeet tribal member and co-owner of Two Sisters Café near Babb
"I think it’s possible to open the gates this year safely. I don’t think we need to open the gates and have a free-for-all."
Higgins thinks closing down the reservation last year was the right thing to do. But with vaccinations widely available on the reservation and active cases hitting zero last week, she’s not waiting for an official announcement about Glacier’s east gates.
She’s hiring employees and building a drive-through coffee stand.
"It will allow us to have some very low contact food sales possibilities, and it will also allow us to respond if we have another flair-up and there's a further close down. At least we will have some outlet where we can have some money coming in."
Ed DesRosier owns Glacier Sun Tours, a Blackfeet van tour company. Like Higgins, he supported the road closure last year, but says he too needs to have some sort of season in 2021 to survive.
"I’ve been doing this 28 years. It’s been nothing that we could have anticipated. But when you start with nothing and you start over, you just go from there and it’s bound to get better."
Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member Mark Pollock says he understands many businesses want certainty of Glacier’s east side reopening.
"To give a definitive answer on it, right now, I could not say. The optimistic answer is June, July."
But Pollock cautions that more restrictions could be put in place if the reservation sees another surge.
Last week , the tribe announced that 80 percent of adults on the reservation have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Pollock says that figure gives him confidence the reservation and its businesses will see a return to more normal times this summer.