By Carlos Morales
A month after gradually reopening Big Bend National Park, officials have decided to close until further notice, as a resident within the park’s community has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to park management. It’s unclear how long BBNP will be closed.
Across the entire Big Bend region, coronavirus cases have steadily climbed in the last several days. As of Wednesday, there is a total of 140 COVID-19 cases in Brewster County and nearly 800 results pending across the tri-county.
No visitors will be allowed into the park, with the exception of employees, residents and other personnel, according to a press release.
Superintendent Bob Krumenaker says the National Park Service is working with local, state and federal authorities to monitor the pandemic.
“We look forward to reopening the park, when the timing is right, as safely as possible,” said Krumenaker in a press release.
As happened during the park’s first closure, healthy employees will continue to work while following social distancing guidelines.
Big Bend National Park was slower to reopen, compared to other high-profile national parks. Part of the reasoning: the far-flung park is roughly 100 miles from the nearest hospital. Krumenaker estimates the park is further from medical care than any other national park in the continental United States.
Shortly after the park first reopened on June 1, superintendent Bob Krumenaker said the decision to reopen was a difficult one, but he would be ready to close again if needed.
“I feel like I have enough information to make a good and defensible decision, but 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 lives will be affected by the decision I make.”
The park first closed during the Spring Break season, the busiest time for tourism to Far West Texas. And according to early estimates, the park had been on track to break visitation records and surpass over 500,000 visitors in a single year for the first time in the park’s 75-year history.
When the park was partially reopened in June, visitation was slightly up for this time of the year. Normally in the summer months when temperatures rise, reaching well into the 100s, tourism drops off. Park staff suggested people were heading to the region to get a break from coronavirus restrictions.
“There are people who are just trying to get away from other places,” Krumaker said in early June. “There are people who are on the road looking for interesting places to go.”
Krumaker said, annecdotally, it seemed most vistors to the park during its first stages of reopening were first-timers and had “pretty limited” knowledge and experience of the Chihuhuan desert. “So, every year when it’s hot, we have some heat injuries,” Krumaker said. “But I think the inexperience of the current visitor actually adds to that risk. So that’s making us nervous.”
A draft of the park’s reopening plan shared with Marfa Public Radio says officials will pause reopening or close the park again if cases in Brewster County or Texas increase. Both have happened in the last few weeks, with Texas continually setting new records for daily coronavirus cases.
This story has been updated.