During a normal spring, Jeff Baldelli’s raft company in West Glacier is typically booking trips, training river guides and preparing for a busy tourist season outside of Glacier National Park.
While there are usually only a few river trips booked in April and May during the chilly, high-water runoff season on Flathead River, he hadn’t taken a single customer on a raft trip before Memorial Day weekend this year.
“We’re way down this spring compared to last spring,” Baldelli, co-owner of Glacier Raft Company, said. “But that’s to be expected.”
With the 14-day travel quarantine set to lift on June 1, Baldelli is hopeful more tourists will head to the area, but he’s mostly reliant on Glacier National Park’s reopening.
“I think the last piece of the puzzle for businesses around here is Glacier National Park,” he said.
But even when the park does reopen, which officials say will be sometime in June, Baldelli’s raft company will operate with slight differences to reduce coronavirus exposure. Before trips, all customers will be screened with a health questionnaire and temperature check before heading down the river, and he’s also offering different services with private trips and private shuttles. He’s also limiting eight people per boat, which usually can hold more than 10.
“It’s a more personalized, private trip,” he said. “Its just a way for (customers) to kind of get away from the crowds if that makes them feel more comfortable.”
With no set reopening date for the park, officials said it will happen once Montana enters Phase Three of reopening, likely sometime in June, according to the National Park Service. Once the park does reopen, officials expect a surge of tourists in the area, but it’s unclear which services will reopen within the park.
The Glacier Park Boat Company suspended all boat tours and rental operations for the season. Glacier National Park Lodges suspended Red Bus tours through July 15, and its lodging, food service and gift shop operations won’t be open until at least June 15. The National Park Service also canceled all advance backcountry reservations and will not be accepting any new reservations for the remainder of 2020.
Even with the park’s inevitable limitations, Baldelli is frustrated that park officials won’t reopen along with the lifting of the 14-day quarantine.
“I don’t see why there’s any reason the park can’t open its doors in conjunction with the 14-day quarantine,” Baldelli said. “I’m not even asking to open visitors centers or amenities; I’m saying open the doors and allow people to visit.”
About eight miles down the road on Highway 2 in Coram, Amazing Fun Center owner Andy Hergesheimer is also feeling the burden on his business with the park’s closure. He’s expecting about half as much revenue at his recreation center, which relies on about 80% of out-of-state customers who are usually en route to the park.
After managing the Amazing Fun Center for the past few summers, Hergesheimer and his wife recently purchased the business this February, making it locally owned for the first time.
“We picked kind of a cruddy year to buy a business,” Hergesheimer said.
With so many businesses in the Flathead Valley relying on Glacier Park’s tourism, Baldelli and about 40 other businesses wrote a letter to Park Superintendent Jeff Mow and Gov. Steve Bullock in early May, urging more clarity regarding the park’s reopening, which Baldelli said was well received in the business community.
Since then, 12 associated chambers of commerce and economic development groups in Bigfork, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Whitefish and other communities have crafted their own letter to Bullock, pushing officials to open Glacier on June 1, in conjunction with Yellowstone National Park’s expected reopening in Montana.
“On behalf of the undersigned organizations and the 3,526 businesses and organizations we represent, we invite you to give your most serious consideration to a targeted opening of Glacier National Park on June 1, 2020,” the letter stated.
In the meantime, Baldelli just wants officials to set a clear date so his clients can start planning their summer.
“What better place to come to than a national park where you can keep your distance from other people while enjoying great hiking, sightseeing and rafting,” he said. “We hope that when the park opens up and starts letting people know when the dates are going to be, we’ll start having more reservations coming in.”