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Yosemite Welcomes Back Visitors After Coronavirus Closure

Yosemite National Park is reopening with several restrictions. About half of the average June visitors will be allowed in, and they must make an online reservation in advance.
Ezra David Romero
Yosemite National Park is reopening with several restrictions. About half of the average June visitors will be allowed in, and they must make an online reservation in advance.

When Sacramento-area couple Amy George and her husband Kyle Monhollen heard Yosemite National Park was reopening Thursday, they rushed online to see if any day passes were left.

"I was drinking my coffee," she said. "I was like, I'm just gonna see. July 22 has some day passes. Great! That's our 20th anniversary, Kyle and I."

Yosemite is opening with many restrictions after shutting down in March to protect people from COVID-19. Only about half of the average June visitors will be allowed in, and they must make an online reservation for each car. Also, park shuttles aren't operating.

The park began accepting reservations Tuesday. It will issue 1,700 day passes each day and an additional 1,900 passes for reservations at campsites or hotels in the park.

"We're going to be monitoring conditions daily. We're going to make adjustments as needed. And we're going to work to maintain safe conditions for visitors," said Jamie Richards, a spokesperson for the park.

Those who arrive at the park without reservations will be turned away at the gate. People who visit on Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS), by bus, on foot or on horseback don't need a day-use reservation. Annual pass holders will still need to get a day-use reservation ahead of time.

Only two campsites are open, one larger site with a limit at 50% capacity and a smaller camp that allows horses. Other camp facilities are closed because of limited staffing.

During the nearly three-month closure, wildlife has flourished without the usual human visitors and their cars. Richards said it'll be interesting to see how animals in the park respond again to people.

"We've seen a lot of bears out and active," she said. "We will see when the park reopens how the animals continue to react and adapt to visitors coming back."

The closure and scaled-down reopening are affecting communities and businesses that surround the park.

"It's a light at the end of the tunnel," said Tony McDaniel with the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau.

Last year visitors spent more than $1.7 billion in the four California counties that surround the park. Brooke Smith, with Visit Yosemite Madera County, said that could drop by as much as half this year.

"Between fires and government shutdowns, this is definitely the longest we've ever gone with Yosemite National Park being closed," she said.

Smith said it's not all negative for short-term rental owners, because people are escaping the Central Valley for places like Bass Lake near the park.

"We have businesses who have never seen so much business for their vacation rental properties," she said. "It's very interesting. People are loving the Airbnb model right now and they are booked and sold-out in many places."

Even with the shutdown, the real estate market in the hills of Madera County has been in a decent place, said Katie Miller, an Oakhurst-based London Properties realtor.

She thought she was going to see a downturn in sales when COVID-19 restrictions began, but she said "fortunately for us, sometimes, you know, you get locked in with family members or people for two months. They feel like they need a bigger home like real quick."

One company anticipating the opening is the Yosemite Sugar Pine Mountain Railroad, which shut down with the rest of California in March.

"We lost every single tour group and school group that we had coming up here," said Scott McGhee, who runs the operation.

This isn't the first time the historic railroad has had to close down.

"We've had our share of incidents beyond our control," McGhee said. "The last major one being a wildfire that happened very close to our property. And then another wildfire that happened miles away from here, but the smoke affected us."

McGhee is excited the park is reopening and is glad there's a raft of new safety protocols in place, including only accepting online reservations.

"We don't want to attract huge groups of people," he said. "We hope that in those cities and surrounding communities they come and rediscover us this summer."

Others like Colette Goga, who runs the dog-friendly Yosemite Wine Tails on Highway 41 into Yosemite, said she almost went out of business. She said she didn't qualify for federal small business loans.

"It's been harsh," she admitted. "That's three months rent, three months of utilities and zero income. It's been eye opening, gut wrenching.

Goga plans to reopen this weekend.

"To only be open for four or five months will pretty much catch me up," she said. "But you shut me down again for three more months and I'm going to be toast."

Copyright 2020 CapRadio News

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