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Yosemite National Park to limit summer visitation due to COVID-19

Yosemite National Park will limit the number of visitors this summer during the peak tourist season due to concerns over COVID-19 by requiring advanced reservations for people who visit the park during the day.

The park’s superintendent, Cicely Muldoon, made the announcement Thursday during a meeting with government and business leaders of the communities surrounding the park. She said the limits are needed due to large crowds that already have been coming to the park in recent weeks, and the fact that there are still cases of COVID-19 spreading in California, and other states and countries where visitors are coming from.

“The basic plan is to protect human health and safety and provide as much access as we can,” Muldoon said.

Under the new rules, advanced reservations will be required for day use visitors who enter the park from May 21 to Sept. 30. Rocky Mountain National Park and Glacier National Park are putting in place similar reservation systems, which have been encouraged for decades by environmental groups but resisted by gateway communities surrounding major parks whose economies depend heavily on tourism.

A similar day-use reservation system was in place last summer to limit Yosemite visitation to 50% of normal during the pandemic. This summer the visitation will range from 50% of normal to 90%, depending on what levels of COVID-19 are found in Mariposa County on the park’s western edges. Currently, with Mariposa in California’s orange tier, Yosemite will allow 70% of normal summer visitation — or about 5,760 vehicles a day.

“We think these numbers will allow people to enjoy the park safely,” Muldoon said.

Reservations can be made at www.recreation.gov beginning at 8 a.m. on April 21. Each day-use reservation is valid for one vehicle and its occupants for three days. Vehicles that arrive at park entrances after May 21 without reservations will not be admitted. Cars passing through the park on Tioga Pass can do that without reservations, but as in the past must pay the $35 admission fee.

Visitors with reservations to stay overnight at hotels and campgrounds located inside the park are not required to make day-use reservations. Nor are people with wilderness and Half Dome permits, or visitors entering the park on the YARTS bus system and on commercial tours.

With more people becoming vaccinated and COVID-19 case numbers falling steadily in California, park officials decided to open more amenities this year than last — but not everything.

Due to COVID-19 concerns, park shuttle buses will not run this summer. Some, but not all campgrounds in the park will be open, with 585 sites available starting July 1, compared to 247 last year.

Hotels like the Ahwahnee and Yosemite Lodge will be open, as will most restaurants, gift shops and gas stations. But indoor visitor centers, the park’s museum, theater and High Sierra camps will be closed. The administration of President Joe Biden also has required all visitors to wear masks indoors at national parks, and outdoors when they cannot remain more than 6 feet apart, a shift from the Trump administration, which did not mandate masks.

One issue this year is that park employees and seasonal concession workers typically live in tightly spaced employee housing, and the park concession company, Aramark, and the National Park Service are planning to hire fewer people than normal to reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in employee housing.

Crowds already have come back in big numbers to the park this spring. Last week, during Easter weekend, there were lines of cars up to an hour long at the park’s entrance stations, with delays of up to two hours in Yosemite Valley.

Dr. Eric Sergienko, Mariposa County’s health officer, said that some state models show that as summer travel opens up, COVID cases could increase in California. Typically about 25% of Yosemite’s visitors come from other countries.

“As we see an increase in population mobility we will see an uptick in cases,” Sergienko said, noting that a huge surge is not expected but variants of the virus are more contagious.

Two of the counties that include Yosemite, Mariposa and Tuolumne, are in California’s orange tier, with moderate COVID-19 case levels similar to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. But the other two, Mono and Madera, along with nearby Fresno County, have higher case levels and remain in the state’s red tier, which indicates “substantial” risk.

Yosemite, which received 4.6 million visitors in 2019, closed March 20, 2020, due to the pandemic. It reopened three months later. Parks officials required advance reservations for day-use visitors for the first time in the park’s 156-year history, and also limited the number of campsites.

Back then, daily use was kept to 50% of normal to keep crowd sizes down. To do that, the park issued up to 1,700 vehicle passes each day for day use, and allowed up to 1,900 more for people with overnight reservations in park hotels and campgrounds.

They lifted the requirement on Nov. 1, due to much lower winter visitation. But in February for four weeks, the reservation system was brought back as crowds turned up to see the “firefall,” bright sunsets reflected off the waters of Horsetail Falls.

Since March 1, however, no day use reservations have been required.

Last year was particularly rough for the gateway communities that surround the park. Not only was the park closed early in the year, but tourism to the area fell dramatically during the pandemic. Smoke from large wildfires was so bad that the park closed for more than a week in September due to hazardous air quality.

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