Less than 24 hours after Gov. Steve Bullock announced the mandatory quarantine for out-of-state visitors would be lifted June 1, about 100 new reservations for the summer and fall were made at RSVP Motel on North Seventh Avenue in Bozeman.
Potential vacationers called the hotel and asked about the rules. They wanted to know what was and wasn’t allowed. So it was refreshing for Hillary Folkvord, one of RSVP’s owners, to share the new information.
“As soon as the news went out and the governor spoke,” Folkvord said, “it was crazy to see all the reservations and all these calls and inquiries.”
The 14-day quarantine for non-work-related travelers began March 30 and at the time, Bullock said travel into Montana was the state’s most common known source of COVID-19 infections. His original reopening plan called for the rule to continue during its second phase, but the governor changed course when he rolled out the details Tuesday.
While the tourism industry has undergone massive shifts in the past two months, removing the required quarantine makes travel into the state much easier for vacationers. As the summer months approach, the change allows some businesses to take a step toward recovery from the economic downturn they’ve experienced.
Bullock said Tuesday the reasoning for the change was multifaceted, including the state’s limited daily caseload and the ability to mitigate risks.
“Part of it is the practical realities,” Bullock added. “I took a run near Holland Lake this past Sunday and seeing a number of out-of-state cars, folks are coming in.”
Now Bullock’s adjustment makes the influx of visitors more likely.
Kristin Draper, for example, travels annually from Fort Collins, Colorado, to see family in Helena. While initially focused on following state and local rules during the pandemic where she lives, she began thinking about her future plans. She had a trip to travel along the Mississippi River in April, but easily ruled that out based on the scope of the situation.
Now that Montana, and states across the country, have eased restrictions, she’s considering whether or not to make the trip this year.
Draper and her husband would drive if they make the trip, eliminating health risks and extra planning logistics other than hotel reservations. As seniors, they’re mindful of what may or may not be safe and want to find out potential travel restrictions in Wyoming and reservations they’d drive through.
Isolating for two weeks for a five-day vacation isn’t be feasible so Draper has at least one less question.
“That feels like a relief now,” Draper said.
At the Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport, the number of travelers was down to only about 3% of normal in April, airport director Brian Sprenger said. That increased to about 8%-10% of normal in May and he is projecting 15-20% in June.
Sprenger expects the climb back to 100% will take time. Since the terminal is built for 10 times as many passengers, there’s “automatic social distancing,” he said.
While many would-be travelers are unwilling to fly or have less money to spend, Sprenger viewed the elimination of the quarantine as a positive start for tourism.
“Without this, there would not be a recovery of the travel and tourism industry,” Sprenger said.
Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department, has spent the past two to three weeks focusing heavily on helping West Yellowstone prepare for a rush of tourists when the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park opens.
In typical years, he said, working with the town to have enough health care resources in the summer is a challenge, and that will only be compounded in the middle of a pandemic.
He emphasized being honest with both the opportunities and risks involved. Allowing the area to remain a tourist hub while being safe is a balancing act.
“That’s going to be really challenging this year,” Kelley said. “We shouldn’t back down from who we are, but we shouldn’t minimize the risks that are involved.”
Prior to the pandemic, Folkvord estimated 80% of rooms would be booked at RSVP Motel. Since, it’s dropped to about 10%. She initially noticed people from within the state making reservations as well as from nearby states who might drive.
Since a crucial chunk of business comes in the summer months, the changes coming June 1 is valuable timing-wise. And since bans in other states are also being lifted, Folkvord described the situation as promising and exciting.
“I think Montana is really going to lead the way in what’s going to happen with tourism this summer,” Folkvord said.