By Carlos Morales
Big Bend National Park will partially reopen this week now that an employee who had previously been diagnosed with the coronavirus has recovered.
The employee tested positive late last month and is now “feeling fine,” according to a park official. Five additional employees who had contact with the person are now out of quarantine as well. Since the announcement of the confirmed case, there have been no additional reports of COVID-19 among staff or residents of the park.
“This is good news,” said Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker. “The park belongs to the people of the United States and we’re glad that, right now at least, our staff are healthy enough that we feel that we can share it.”
This is the third time the park has closed and subsequently reopened since early March. The first time, during the region’s peak tourist season, was largely a precautionary move. The second and most recent closure were both prompted by cases of coronavirus.
Shortly after the park reopened in June, Krumenaker said the decision to allow visitors back into Big Bend was a difficult one, and that he was ready to close the park down again if needed. “There’s no clear right and wrong here,” Krumenaker told Marfa Public Radio in early June. “A lot of people’s economic lives and, most of all, their health will be affected by the decision I make.”
When the park reopens Friday it will be for day-time use only, similar to how park officials first reopened the sprawling 801,000-acre destination earlier this summer.
All paved roads will reopen except those leading to the Rio Grande Village and to the Castolon and Santa Elena Canyon areas. Most trails along roads accessible to visitors will be open to the public. As previously done, park staff will have informational kiosks at the Panther Junction and Chisos Basin visitor centers.
Access to the Rio Grande will be barred at this time and hikers will not be allowed to go off-trail to hike or camp.
Officials say the park will remain at this restricted level of reopening “until further notice.” Park officials made the decision to open with limited access, partly because of staffing constraints. During summer months, there are seasonal furloughs, and there’s been some employee turnover this year, so officials don’t want to open at levels they’re not prepared for.
Public health and how the coronavirus spreads in the Big Bend area will determine whether the park will relax its restrictions or shut down again, according to Krumenaker. Brewster County, where the park is located, was the site of a recent coronavirus outbreak.
Krumenaker says the park could move forward or could reverse its reopening plans depending on the impact the pandemic is having across the state and depending on guidance from federal, state, and local health authorities.
“I would not expect that we’re out of the woods and everything will be fine from here on end,” Krumenaker said. “I’m just hoping….we can sustain a modest level of visitation without putting our people at undue risk.”