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Unknowns weigh heavy on tourism-reliant businesses

| May 3, 2020 1:00 AM

The slow reopening of Northwest Montana is underway following the coronavirus-induced economic standstill. Many retail shops across the valley chose to welcome back customers last week, and restaurants and bars will follow suit on Monday, per the state’s phased reopening strategy.

It comes not a moment too soon. A jarring study released last week by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana projects steep economic losses for the state, to the tune of some 55,000 jobs. Nearly every major industry in the state including hospitality, food, retail and arts and entertainment will have lower employment because of the pandemic.

While it is certainly encouraging to see the wheels of commerce turning again, a full return to normal economic activity won’t happen in our region until we can fully embrace the influx out-of-state tourists many businesses rely on each summer. And that largely hinges on when the crown jewel of Northwest Montana’s tourist attractions can reopen — Glacier National Park.

When the park will welcome visitors is the multi-million dollar question. As it stands now, businesses are left playing a guessing game about ramping up operations. Resorts, guiding services, restaurants, attractions, and even the park rely on seasonal workers each summer to meet the spike in demands. That hiring and preparation can’t be done in earnest without a target opening date for Glacier Park.

Currently, the park has only hired 10% of its typical workforce for this time of year — a scenario facing many other local businesses as well.

The uncertainty of this summer has already proven to be too risky for one longtime Glacier attraction. Glacier Park Boat Company, which operates all tour boats in the park, announced this week that it won’t open due to the impact of the coronavirus.

For Glacier’s part, park officials can’t project a definitive opening date without knowing how quickly the state will progress through the phased reopening.

Such is the conundrum Glacier and its gateway businesses are facing.

Still, Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow offered a ray of hope on the horizon. He said the park “will open this summer.” Probably sometime toward the end of June, he anticipated, when the state’s reopening plan might reach phase 3. That’s when interstate travel can resume and guidelines that require out-of-state visitors to self quarantine for 14 days expire.

As it stands now, any visitors to our area must stay within the property in which they are residing for a full two weeks, and may not leave that property for groceries, outdoor recreation, to go to work or any other activity.

Yet, even when those restrictions are lifted and the park reopens, Glacier visitors should expect a multitude of modifications this summer. Services will likely be reduced and some popular trails could remain closed to adhere to social distancing guidelines, among other changes.

Mow said when Glacier is finally given the green light, operations will ramp back up on a “layer-by-layer basis,” with the first and most prioritized layer being the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

“We can’t just flip the switch on Glacier this year and have everything run business-as-usual,” Mow said. “We are trying to navigate what might be a new normal.”

Unfortunately, the only certainty Glacier and our tourism-depended businesses can count on this summer is that it will be a season unlike any other.