Almost everything related to Yosemite National Park is funded by the taxpayers.
From the majestic roads to the not-so-majestic restroom facilities, tax dollars pour into the park.
Those dollars are also used to fund Aramark, the concessionaire for Yosemite.
Yet with all of that, during what many consider one of the greatest crisis this nation is facing, those using the public funds are staying mostly silent when it comes to what’s happening in the park.
And what’s happening has major ramifications for the residents of Mariposa County.
There are many issues related to Yosemite, the pandemic and how the park will reopen.
On Tuesday morning, officials from Yosemite and Aramark did release brief statements about the park, though the information remains vague.
“Yosemite National Park is working closely with federal, state, and local public health authorities, as well as the four surrounding counties (Mariposa, Tuolumne, Madera and Mono), to closely monitor the COVID-19 pandemic and develop a phased approach to increase recreational access and services,” said Scott Gediman of the public information office at Yosemite.
He continued: “Our operational approach continues to be centered on examining each facility function and service provided to ensure those operations comply with current public health guidance and will be regularly monitored. We continue to work closely with the NPS Office of Public Health using CDC guidance to ensure public areas and workspaces are and will be safe and clean for visitors, employees, partners and volunteers.”
Though not specific, Gediman did address the issue of how much access there might be for people who want to visit one of the most iconic parks in the world.
“Our goal is to continue to provide a wide array of outstanding opportunities for visitors to enjoy Yosemite National Park as we gradually increase access. However, some facilities and services that we’ve been accustomed to offering in the past will not be possible this year due to the pandemic. We continue to work closely with the concessioner on our operational planning and a public announcement will be made when our plans have been finalized,” said Gediman.
Lisa Cesaro, regional marketing director for Aramark, also released a statement, though there are few, if any, concrete details about what might happen.
“Questions about the park’s plans and timing for re-opening are best directed to NPS-Yosemite. What we can tell you and, it probably is not a surprise, when the park does reopen, some guest services and offerings will be impacted to protect employees and visitors, as well as to help control the spread of Covid-19. These are unprecedented times that, regrettably, will require incredibly difficult decisions and we are committed to working with and assisting associates affected by them,” said Cesaro.
She also stated the following when it comes to some workers who have been furloughed by the company: “To clear up what you may have read or heard over the weekend, for impacted employees having trouble making new housing arrangements, we will continue to work with and assist them on an individual basis until they are able to do so.”
Yet the public remains in the dark on most of those issues, save for some memos sent by officials and leaked out on social media.
For example, it seems clear Aramark is furloughing its bus drivers who work daily in Yosemite Valley hauling passengers to and from various destinations. Exactly how many drivers were furloughed has not been officially announced, though various people have suggested it is somewhere around 90. It also means those people who utilize the housing at the park will have to move. It is unclear how many bus drivers use the housing.
One memo that was dated May 8 from Debra Rockwood and Enrique Fernandez, apparently union representatives for some Aramark employees, outlines issues facing Aramark, which operates nearly all of the concessions in the park, including the hotels, gift shops, buses and more.
“We are facing an industry challenge,” said the memo, which was posted on a Facebook site.
The memo also states that “social distancing will be inevitable for many months” and that it is “impacting the way we do our work and the amount of work available…”
The memo also states that changes by the National Park Service “will be reducing the amount of work for our members.”
Aramark has made no official statements about what is happening inside Yosemite. An email was sent to Aramark by this newspaper on Monday morning but there was no response.
Attempts have also been made to talk with National Park Service officials, but to no avail.
The memo on social media outlined what it says are plans by Aramark to reduce services inside Yosemite. It is almost certainly the result of decisions made by the park service, however, that cannot be confirmed through any official channels.
One Aramark worker who contacted this newspaper but asked to remain anonymous said she felt the company handled the news poorly. The woman said most people understand changes have to be made because of the pandemic, but how it is handled is a different story.
The woman chastised both the park service leadership as well as Aramark, saying when those officials were on a call on Friday to talk about the current situation, they simply glossed over the issues.
She said people’s lives are being impacted and felt more compassion should be shown.
The memo released by the union representatives does seem to indicate the thinking of park service officials when Yosemite does reopen to visitors.
For example, it says the pool and the Mountain Room restaurant at Yosemite Lodge will not open for 2020. It states lodging can be booked at 100 percent at Yosemite Lodge.
At Curry Village, the memo states no stables will be in operation, the various mountain schools that featured hiking guides and more will not be open, the pool will not open and only 50 percent of lodging will be used.
At the landmark Ahwahnee Hotel, the memo indicates there will be no valet service, no room service, but the hotel can book 100 percent. The dining room will be for hotel guests only.
There are various other listings, as well, including Degnan’s Loft will not be open for food service in the valley.
All of these things impact a lot more people than the bus drivers. It remains unclear what these reduced services will do to others who work for Aramark. Will more people be told they can no longer live in the park housing? How does the governor’s order that no one can be evicted come into play since this is on federal land?
Nobody is answering those questions.
It could also have other implications, including what park service officials are planning when it comes to how they reopen the park.
Are there plans to limit the number of people who get into the park? If so, what happens to those people who don’t get in; where do they go? How would such a system work; would it be a lottery?
A similar attempt was made at the park many years ago when the number of cars allowed in was limited.
It went over with a thud and was quickly scrapped.
For Liz Skelton, owner of the Butterfly Bed and Breakfast in El Portal, the lack of information is maddening.
“They haven’t asked anybody about it,” said Skelton. “I don’t know why they didn’t ask for any input.”
Skelton said she wants the park “to be able to open safely for health and safety purposes.”
However, she also said officials need to be open and honest about what they are doing.
“They don’t seem too good at creative thinking,” said Skelton.
Skelton fears the process of limiting vehicles has not been thought out properly and wonders what might happen. She has heard the goal might be 1,200 cars per day with 400 of them for Aramark employees.
“What about the other 800? How does that work?” asked Skelton.
“They seem to be oblivious or just don’t care and don’t see the impacts of this,” said Skelton. “It has been really bad.”
She said the bed and breakfast has lost “thousands and thousands of dollars” during the pandemic.
“People are very concerned and all the businesses are upset by the closure,” said Skelton. “The park service never consults people in this area in the 40-plus years we’ve lived here. They pass down edicts.”
The Mariposa County Supervisors, too, weighed in on what is happening at Yosemite during a special meeting held Tuesday.
“There are concerns about the extent to which we are collaborating with the park and the extent of the park being open about when they intend to open up,” said Supervisor Rosemarie Smallcombe, who represents a vast majority of the park.
Dr. Eric Sergienko, the county health officer, said he has been working with park officials, though he stressed since it is a federal organization, they are relying on their national health officer in Washington.
“The park is interested in moving forward; probably slower than we are,” said Sergienko. “They don’t want to open too quickly without staff in place. Also, they need housing for seasonal workers.”
Sergienko said it was his understanding new rules have been implemented for seasonal workers that include each worker has to have access to one room and one bathroom only.
“They are figuring out their reopening process,” said Sergienko.
Smallcombe then asked Sergienko about Aramark, and he said he has not had any direct contact with the company but is working with park officials.
Board chairman Kevin Cann said the lifting of the non-essential travel ban is “the key threshold” when it comes to people visiting Yosemite.
“There are a lot of challenges for us,” said Cann. “I know that Yosemite is looking at a very restricted opening.”
Cann, who was the former assistant superintendent at Yosemite, said it is his understanding park officials are looking at “a fraction” of the normal amount of visitors.
What that means for businesses in Mariposa County remains unclear.
He said “a lot of folks” who come to the area wanting to go to Yosemite may “not be happy” once they arrive and find out they cannot get into the park.
How that will impact local businesses and residents remains to be seen, he said.