At least seven National Park Service employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, yet the Trump administration continues to operate the park system that attracts thousands of Americans each day.
In response to questions from The Washington Post, the agency said Tuesday that as of Monday, seven Park Service employees have tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. That figure doesn't include workers in the park who are not federal employees. "The NPS is working with our contractors and concessionaires to track reported cases of their employees as well," Stephanie Roulett, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
The Park Service, a division of the Interior Department, will not identify where the affected employees are to protect their identities. The infections came to light in a Wednesday teleconference when Park Service Director David Vela told workers, “this week, sadly, we received word of the first confirmed cases of NPS employees with covid-19.”
Last week, the superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, said an employee tested positive. It was closed March 24. At Grand Canyon National Park, which drew large crowds over the weekend and remains open, park employees were informed Monday that a resident in the park's housing complex on the South Rim has tested positive.
Roulett said no Park Service employee at Grand Canyon has been diagnosed with covid-19. Officials in Coconino County, which includes the park, have asked it to be shut down.
Covid-19 is a highly infectious disease. "Whenever you see the virus, it's moved on already - it will have infected other people by the time you become aware of it," said Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The Park Service has closed more than 100 sites to protect against spreading the coronavirus, including some of its most popular landmarks - the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Statue of Liberty and the Arches and Yellowstone national parks. But more than 300 sites remain open, and the government has waived entrance fees.
In a sign of the potential risk some employees face, Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Rob Wallace has signed a memo authorizing environmental hazard pay for some workers. The agency is still working out the details but intends it for custodial staff and employees who come into close contact with visitors.
News that the virus is spreading through national parks staffs has sparked complaints from employees who are still compelled to go to work. On Monday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt sent a note to department employees reiterating the importance of keeping operations going despite the pandemic.
"Your continued perseverance to continue the work at hand is recognized and appreciated," Bernhardt wrote in the opening paragraph. He pressed employees to continue working. "I appreciate and expect that all department employees will continue to fulfill their duties and responsibilities as assigned while also taking necessary steps to preserve their health and safety and attend to the needs of their families," he wrote.
Roulett said the agency determined the risk posed by infected employees to others was low because the window for exposure occurred after the park curtailed access, employees were teleworking or "the employee who tested positive did not work in close contact with visitors and once identified, went into self isolation."
But many rank-and-file employees are afraid of transferring the illness to family members, said Dustin Stone, a Park Service worker in Alaska who quit about two weeks ago over Bernhardt's refusal to close the parks. Like some park superintendents and leaders in neighboring communities, Stone is pressing to close parks during the outbreak.
Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, along with a group of 10 House Democrats led by House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva of Arizona, urged Bernhardt in a pair of letters Tuesday to close off more sites to help stop the spread of the virus.
The Park Service said it can operate its attractions in a way that is consistent with public health advisories. "We have issued messages on park websites, social media, and in the press to urge our visitors to follow CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance, and provided additional measures for the public to follow if they choose to visit our parks," Roulett said.
The agency has limited the public's access to narrow trails, park grounds and popular overlooks to adhere to the CDC's guidance on social distancing. "The health and safety of National Park Service visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners is our number one priority," said the spokeswoman.
But many of the restrictions were implemented after visitors crowded onto paths, camps and overlooks, potentially spreading the virus. The alerts do not inform visitors that some staffers have been infected. The Park Service said there was little chance that those who tested positive could have spread the virus to a visitor.
In the weeks leading to the infections of workers, according to several park staffers, top officials appeared to minimize the impact of the outbreak.
The agency's Region 1 website posted a "Tricky Tuesday" entry on March 3 that said the CDC considered the virus "a serious public health threat; however, based on current information, the immediate health risk within the U.S. is considered low at this time. While instances of person-to-person spread between close contacts has been detected in the U.S., this virus is NOT currently spreading throughout U.S. communities."
About a week later, Interior delivered "talking points" to employees that praised President Trump's handling of the crisis. The document, obtained by The Post, noted that Trump had "Suspended all travel coming in from China and Iran" and "delivered a historically strong economy, whether it's on unemployment numbers or on productivity and he's going to keep doing that."
Before last week, Stone in Alaska was the only Park Service employee to speak out against Bernhardt's decision to keep the parks open. After Vela told thousands of employees on the Wednesday conference call that multiple colleagues had the coronavirus and implored them to keep working, that changed.
Trevor Wright was one of several workers at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park sent home Thursday over concerns about exposure to the virus.
Wright, who has done masonry, carpentry and other maintenance work at the park for five years, asked his supervisors why some parks were open during the pandemic. When he didn't get an answer that satisfied him, Wright sent a letter to his park's superintendent asking for an explanation.
Wright began to email park employees when he failed to get a response - first everyone at his park, then everyone in a region stretching from Montana to Texas. Finally, he emailed nearly every park employee across the country.
"I was so very tired of hearing non-answer answers as to why we were doing this," Wright said in an interview. "No one could tell me why the risk was acceptable or what the perceived benefit was."
A Park Service official said Monday that there are no confirmed cases of agency employees with covid-19 at Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.
As Wright questioned his supervisors in Texas, Great Smoky Mountains National Park closed. At first, the Park Service told media outlets that an employee had tested positive. But by the end of the week, the agency sent a memo to superintendents and public affairs officers instructing them to no longer publicly confirm covid-19 cases in specific parks to "ensure employee privacy."
Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the agency should be able to offer more information to park employees and visitors when an infection is confirmed.
“It’s really important for people to have this information,” she said.