Business owners in one of Yellowstone National Park’s most popular gateway communities say the peak summer season has been busier than ever with more visitors. At the same time, a shortage of workers is affecting how many tourism dollars they can rake in.
At Tumbleweed Books and Cafe in Gardiner, people line up to order smoothies and iced coffees. Owner Anna Holloway finishes wrapping an egg burrito and takes a quick break.
“This is hands down the busiest summer I’ve seen in the 15 years that I’ve lived here and the 12 years that I’ve owned the Tumbleweed,” Holloway said.
Down the street at Montana Whitewater, rafting manager Sam Bollinger fields phone calls before the first tour group shows up.
“Talking with a lot of our customers, a lot of them were planning on doing trips overseas, and instead of going overseas they came to Yellowstone this year,” Bollinger said.
The coronavirus pandemic disrupted summer travel plans for millions of people in the U.S. For many, road tripping to the nation’s first national park felt fairly safe and offered flexibility among limited travel options.
Yellowstone National Park’s July visitation stats released on Aug. 18 show 955,645 people passed through gateway communities to visit the park last month. Visits in June were down, but July saw a two percent increase over the same month last year.
“We did not expect this. We expected to do about 50 percent of our business, and it turned out that we did well over 100 percent of our business for July,” Bollinger said.
Despite the bump in tourists, Bollinger says Montana Whitewater scaled back some of its tours. Anna Holloway says she may need to temporarily close Tumbleweed Books and Cafe. They just don’t have enough staff, something many other Gardiner business owners are facing as well.
Nearby at the Comfort Inn, general manager Laura Clem says she has a few minutes to talk between phone calls and guests checking out.
“We also, of course like everyone else in town, have a shortage of staff. So a lot of times if we have 77 rooms and 60 of them need cleaned, you have three house keepers, that’s a lot of rooms to get cleaned," Clem said.
"There’s just no staff in town. Total staff, I usually have around 20, 21 for front desk, breakfast, housekeeping. Right now, I believe we have 8,” Clem said.
Clem said many of her international workers weren't allowed to come to the country this year.
J-1 and other temporary work visas have been frozen since June. Pres. Donald Trump wrote in a proclamation an influx of guest workers “present[ed] a risk to the U.S. labor market following the coronavirus outbreak.”
Terese Petcoff, executive director of the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce, told YPR the majority of businesses employ seasonal workers with this type of visa to get through the summer.
Anna Holloway with Tumbleweed Books and Cafe says businesses also had to compete with the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits, which expired at the end of July. The state of Montana recently applied for a federal grant to add an extra $400 a week.
“I lost three people that were committed to work for me this summer that decided to stay on unemployment instead. So I ended up hiring probably five high schoolers, and they all start school next week,” Holloway said.
With the school year starting up again, Holloway says she may need to temporarily shut down Tumbleweed if she can’t find more employees.
She says her cafe is one of the few remaining places in Gardiner open for breakfast.
Another popular spot was destroyed by a fire in July, and other restaurants have reduced their hours or temporarily closed due to staffing shortages.
While demand is up at Tumbleweed and Montana Whitewater, Laura Clem with the Comfort Inn says the number of guests is lower than this time last year, partly because they’re trying to adhere to public health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Once somebody’s in a room, we try and block it for the next night so then somebody’s not going in there directly after,” Clem said.
Many travelers this summer have also been hesitant to stay in hotels and motels, opting instead to camp. A KOA report from the end of April said, “Leisure travelers, including both campers and non-campers, rank camping as the safest form of travel to resume once restrictions are lifted.” RV deliveries to retailers were 10 percent higher in June compared to the same time last year.
The drop in hotel, motel, bed and breakfast, guest ranch and resort guests also means a drop in state Bed Tax revenue. Dollars generated from bed taxes statewide this April, May and June, during stay at home mandates and park closures, are less than half of the revenue from the same stretch last year, according to data from the Montana Department of Revenue.
Montana didn't lift its out of state two week quarantine order until June 1. Yellowstone officials closed the park in March due to health and safety reasons related to COVID-19. The park opened two Wyoming entrances on May 18 and the three Montana entrances June 1.
In Park County, earnings in June last year were over $8.8 million, compared to less than $5.4 million this year. That’s about a 40 percent drop.
The full impact of the pandemic on state revenues remains to be seen. But Sam Bollinger at Montana Whitewater expects the rafting company’s profits to be about the same as last year.
“It’s been an interesting season," Bollinger said.