Melissa Ellis isn’t accustomed to being the bearer of bad news, but as Whitefish’s de facto gatekeeper the past two months she’s been delivering a lot of it.
“My message to prospective visitors has been ‘do not come here until further notice because you will not be welcome,’” Ellis, who is the membership director for the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, said. “I have been answering a lot of questions and clarifying our quarantine rules, and I have been telling a lot of our would-be visitors ‘no.’ It has been difficult.”
According to Ellis, that switch flipped last week when Gov. Steve Bullock announced the state will lift its 14-day travel quarantine that applies to anyone coming into Montana for non-work purposes, e.g. tourists.
“Now that it’s all ‘yes, please come visit June 1,’ and it’s like a breath of fresh air,” Ellis said of the policy pivot. “Everyone has been really awesome because we’re talking about positive possibilities. People are so thankful.”
Ellis said she appreciates visitors calling with questions to clarify local restrictions surrounding COVID-19, and many of them are delightfully surprised to learn that bars and restaurants are opening with capacity caps, while coffee and retail shops are open along downtown Whitefish’s Central Avenue.
“I actually express my appreciation to people who are calling and doing research, because I have gotten a lot of calls from people who are frustrated because they can’t leave their room at a lodging facility or the guy at the lube shop won’t change their oil because they have Colorado license plates. Now that we’re opening, the inquiries are a lot more positive whereas before they were frustrated.”
Although it’s a good sign that visitors’ moods are improving now that their vacation plans aren’t totally derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, Ellis says she’s been more concerned about her business members.
“From a lodging perspective, the only time the phone rang for the past two months was for a cancellation,” Ellis said. “Now their phones are ringing with reservations. So they have this new energy, money is starting to come in. It’s the exact opposite. There’s a feeling of summer is here, it’s game on, let’s do this.”
Cricket Butler, owner of Whitefish Bike Retreat, said the steady rate of cancellations at her lodging facility, which includes camping accommodations tailored to cyclists, was a crushing reality to endure. She began asking if guests would consider retaining credit instead of a refund, but she hated asking during a time of crisis that impacts everyone.
“It was a painful blow,” Butler said. “At a certain point I just had to stop reading my emails because they were all cancellations. It’s going to be a huge net loss for the year, for anyone in tourism and recreation, but we are all in this together and we will get through this.”
The announcement that Montana will begin easing its restrictions on visitors, she said, was a relief.
“I felt like I could breathe again,” she said. “For Whitefish to start accepting travelers at all will be a game changer. I’m a small business, but knowing what I went through personally, I can’t even imagine the losses that bigger operations are absorbing. These are repercussions that we are all going to feel through the summer.”
Another popular question Ellis has been receiving at the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce is related to Glacier National Park and its projected opening.
On May 18, the Wyoming gates of Yellowstone National Park swung open, and Bullock told reporters that Montana was “on track” for a June 1 opening of its three gates.
Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow has said a June opening is likely at the park’s west entrance, where visitors will be allowed to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road to its gated terminus at Lake McDonald Lodge — plows are working to clear the alpine highway of heavy snow — but services will be limited.
An official timetable for Glacier remains under wraps, but even without Glacier’s full opening, Ellis says there’s plenty to do in the Flathead Valley, and she’s helped visitors craft an itinerary that includes trips to the Great Bear Wilderness, the Flathead National Forest, and Whitefish Mountain Resort.
“I tell people, ‘you can do anything you want and still see the same mountain ranges, just from a different point of view,’” Ellis said.
Of the many questions prospective visitors have been bombarding Ellis with, she acknowledges that none of them have to do with personal hygiene or public sanitization guidelines.
“I have not had one single question about that,” she said. “They all ask about the quarantine, or they all ask if something is open. They don’t ask about hygiene at all.”
Bullock emphasized last week he wants people not to travel to Montana if they are symptomatic. The governor also told Montanans and out-of-state travelers alike to respect restrictions on the state’s seven tribal reservations that may go further than his, including the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on Glacier Park’s eastern boundary, and the Flathead Indian Reservation on the southern half of Flathead Lake.
All businesses are required to follow the social distancing and sanitation guidelines established in Bullock’s phased reopening plan, and Montanans are encouraged to continue sanitation practices, including frequent hand washing, social distancing, and wearing masks in public places like grocery and retail stores.
“Now that we are preparing to welcome visitors back, we will ask travelers to show careful consideration during their visit to help maintain the wellbeing of our community members,” Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith said.