Reopening of Crater Lake National Park, which has been closed since March 24 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, remains an unknown.
“I hope it’s June,” said Craig Ackerman, Crater Lake’s superintendent, during a Thursday telephone call. “We’re working to get a date. We’re getting closer and closer to it.”
Ackerman said twice-a-week conference calls include park managers, National Park Service officials, state and local health department directors, along with managers from Aramark, which took over park concession operations in 2019. Although nearly all plans remain uncertain, it has been determined that Aramark will not offer summer lake boat tours.
“Everything’s on the table. It’s a hugely complex issue,” Ackerman said, emphasizing he and others are working to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), federal, state and local health departments and Oregon guidelines.
He noted the reopening of other national parks resulted in a “crush” of visitors, saying, “We want to learn lessons from those experiences.”
Ackerman said the park’s eventual reopening will likely be done in phases with limits, for example, on the number of people permitted at park dining and lodging facilities and at campgrounds.
Complicating reopening is the limited housing for the park’s and Aramark’s seasonal employees. Each summer the park deals with housing shortages for NPS seasonals. Aramark faces challenges because many seasonal staff live in dormitories with shared rooms. And, because of the uncertainties when and if the park will reopen, Ackerman said several seasonal jobs have not been filled. Other than permanent staff that oversee and clean restrooms, all seasonal custodian jobs are vacant.
When the park reopens, Ackerman expects a range of issues.
Most importantly, “What we want to avoid is opening and having a huge spike” in coronavirus cases “and having to close again … We have to have alternative plans in case of a new wave and make sure we’re prepared to handle any situation.”
Along with issues directly affecting the park and its staff, he said there are concerns that reopening will “attract thousands, tens-of-thousands of people into adjacent communities,” such as Klamath Falls, Medford and Bend, from all over the nation, including high-risk areas.
“Every place you turn there’s a new issue that pops up,” he said of the obstacles in planning for reopening.
Among possibilities discussed include limiting the number of visitors on a daily basis or requiring reservations. Ackerman said those would pose other problems, such as visitors having to possibly wait hours at entrance stations and enforcing the numbers of people congregating at information centers, concession facilities and lake viewpoints.
Noting that social distancing recommendations are often being ignored, Ackerman said that with the park’s limited staffing, “We have no way of enforcing social compliance at overlooks, on trails, at campgrounds, park buildings. We are not,” he emphasized, “the social distancing police.”
Ackerman also expressed concern for NPS and Aramark staff who will have contact from visitors from all over the U.S. and, as travel restrictions are lifted, international travelers. Although there are no longer shortages of personal protective equipment for park staff, he said a major concern is the safety of people working in the park.
Adding to concerns is this winter’s low snowfall. Although the lack of snow is allowing snowplow crews to move forward with clearing Rim Drive, the below average precipitation resulted in fire season starting a month earlier than usual and the increased possibility of an active fire season. “The snow’s not gone, but it’s certainly well below average.”
The many variables and unknowns are also impacting the park’s permanent employees.
“I’ve never seen the staff here more frustrated,” Ackerman said. “People want to work. They’re here for the job, not the money. Usually we have brilliant solutions to the most complicated problems. This is different. Every single person on this staff wants to reopen and work with visitors and do the work we do.
“It’s a new world,” Ackerman said, emphasizing that when the park reopens, “things will not be back to the way they were.”