Fort Laramie NHS serves visitors amid COVID-19

Alex Hargrave/Lusk Herald The Visitor Center at Fort Laramie National Historic Site is one building that remains closed at the beginning of this summer amid the coronavirus pandemic.

FORT LARAMIE – Tourism around the globe has had to make adjustments due to the coronavirus, and southeast Wyoming is no exception. 

Historic grounds and Confluence Trail at Fort Laramie National Historic Site, a division of the National Park Service, remained open for visitors throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but historic structures that would bring visitors indoors were closed until recently.

Decisions of when to reopen certain structures are based on state, local and park service guidelines, according to Eric Valencia, Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at FLNHS.

“We generally take those guidelines and the first question we ask is what is it that we can open that falls within these guidelines,” Valencia said. “When those ideas are presented, then we conduct a risk assessment. Everything follows a very strict safety protocol and procedure before we move into action.”

As of June 16, the majority of FLNHS is open to visitors with the exception of the Visitor Center and specific historic structures and restrooms. 

Because the Visitor Center is closed, a table with souvenirs including books, postcards and t-shirts is relocated to the porch of the Cavalry Barracks. Neither the coronavirus nor the plastic covering over the items stopped tourists like Mark Adams from visiting and making purchases in early June.

Adams, a self-described “forts connoisseur,” visited from Houston, Texas, with his family while staying with relatives in Wheatland. He and his family experienced some closures due to the coronavirus during their trip to Wyoming, but spending time outdoors in national parks has been a sort of refuge.

“Doing things like this is good for us, learning but keeps us healthy as well,” Adams said. “Of course, we socially distance and we bought [hand sanitizer], so we use that too.”

As visitors navigate open buildings, staircases are roped off, paired with a sign asking them to refrain from touching surfaces, citing the potential spread of COVID-19. Reminders to keep at least six feet of distance between one another are also posted, complete with illustrations of two people standing apart from one another, one wearing a hat characteristic of NPS park rangers. 

Though the closure of the Visitor Center prevents tourists from watching films and picking up brochures or audio tours, they can still talk with park rangers for more historical background on the grounds, according to Valencia.

“Comments from the visiting public have been very positive,” Valencia said. “They’re happy to be visiting a national park as they always are and pleased to find there are rangers out on the grounds to provide them with those visitor services that they expect from the National Park Service.”

According to the recently released 2019 National Park Service Visitor Spending Effects Report, roughly 42,900 FLNHS visitors spent an estimated $2.6 million last year, generating $3 million in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding the park. 

FLNHS Superintendent Mark Davison said they’ve had to cancel a lot of spring activities, like school groups that tend to visit toward the end of the school year. 

“April and May count for a majority of our visitation,” Davison said. “We’ve seen a drop off in people visiting our area, too.” 

Steve and Marie Kessler recently sold their home in Allentown, Pa., and bought a motorhome to travel around the United States. The couple said they planned to spend the month in Wyoming and surrounding states where coronavirus cases are fewer. Goshen County, as of June 16, has had four laboratory-confirmed cases, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.

Typically when they visit national parks, the Kesslers opt to watch films and listen to audio tours. Still, they are grateful for the opportunity to visit. 

“We’re just starting to get into the history as we approach these areas, so we’re glad it’s open,” Marie Kessler said. “We are disappointed the Visitor Center’s closed, because you get a lot more history watching the film and everything than just walking around.”

“The guards that are out are helpful,” she added.

In addition to slowly bringing back visitors into certain structures, FLNHS is bringing in three new hires for the summer months. Procedure regarding new staff members coming from out of the area is based on state public health guidelines, Valencia said.

“[New employees] are given some questions and if there is any chance they’ve been exposed [to the coronavirus], then we follow certain procedures before we bring them on site,” Valencia said.

On-site events resumed  this week with the annual night sky event on June 18, which will be followed by more throughout the season. 

Like other national parks, FLNHS will continue welcoming visitors with modifications to operations to keep them and employees safe. 

“It’s hard to really say yep, we’re all open or all closed,” Davison said. “We’re trying to be somewhere in between.”

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