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UPDATE | Report: More Than 2,000 Interior Department Employees Infected By Covid-19

By Kurt Repanshek – December 18th, 2020

Editor’s note: This updates with reaction from the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, and the National Parks Conservation Association.

More than 2,000 Interior Department employees, including more than 500 at the National Park Service, have been infected with Covid-19 this year, according to a news report.

National Park Service and Interior officials have refused to discuss how extensive the spread of infection might be within their agencies. Interior has refused to respond to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests from the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks seeking information on the rate of infection within the Park Service.

At the Coalition, Phil Francis wasn’t particularly surprised to learn of the high NPS count.

“We wish everyone and their families and friends the very best. Unfortunately, and especially in light of recent revelations about how the administration viewed the pandemic while meeting behind closed doors, it’s more apparent than ever how little regard the (Interior) secretary has for those who work in Interior. January 20 cannot arrive soon enough,” Francis told Traveler in an email.

“It’s a shame how those who have see served the American people so well for so long are treated as pawns in the political process,” he added. “We look forward to a new set of leaders who will be more concerned about the health and safety of their employees than the self-serving goals of a secretary and the administration.”

Kristen Brengel at the National Parks Conservation Association said the toll of infections didn’t have to happen.

“This whole pandemic has been botched by Interior,” she said, explaining that earlier this year the Interior Department insisted that park superintendents get letters from local health officials supporting a decision to close parks.

“We saw the emails from park staff that DOI wasn’t allowing Grand Canyon to close,” said Brengel, NPCA’s senior vice president for government affairs. “They’ve put superintendents in untenable positions. The superintendents have wanted to protect their staff and health and safety, and the Interior Department wasn’t allowing them to do it. They required letters from the superintendents, and not everyone could get one.”

“DOI made them jump through hoops to get local support for it,” said Brengel. “When you have people’s lives in your hands, you don’t play politics with them.”

While Yellowstone National Park this year issued monthly tallies concerning infections among park and concession employees, other parks have not been as forthcoming.

Big Bend National Park in Texas did close temporarily in July after an employee was infected, though the park quietly reopened in August.

The Big Bend area has been viewed as one of the most vulnerable parts of the country due to the lack of medical facilities. The closest hospital to the park is 100 miles away in Alpine, Texas, and has just 25 beds.

According to E&E News, Interior’s latest tally of Covid among its far-flung workforce shows that there have been 2,130 cases. Inside the Park Service, there have been 522 cases and one confirmed death, according to the report Friday afternoon. The Bureau of Indian Education reported the most deaths within Interior due to the disease, with eight.

This week Interior Secretary David Bernhardt reportedly contracted the disease.

National Park Service staff in Washington did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment on the news report. However, a Park Service spokesperson told E&E News that “(U)se of our data to inform any outside studies or reporting could be misleading and is duplicative of data gathered from state and local health departments.”

At Big Bend, Superintendent Bob Krumenaker had told Traveler that the lack of medical facilities is concerning, though there were no plans to close the park.

“Obviously, the things that we highlighted back in April that led to the first closure of the park, which had to do with the availability of medical care, now we are right on the cusp of being where we feared in April and had approval to close the park at that time,” he said. “That has not changed. In fact, our contact with the local medical people (says) they’re very worried.”

Interestingly, said the superintendent, while Big Bend has seen heavy visitation this fall, those visitors don’t seem to be bringing Covid with them.

“Even though our county and the surrounding counties are among the hottest counties in the country right now, there isn’t much evidence, fortunately, that the visitors are bringing Covid here,” said Krumenaker.

Many units of the National Park Service have reduced services or kept areas closed due to the pandemic this year. Just this month many national parks in California closed campgrounds, lodgings, and restaurants due to state orders issued in a bid to slow the spread of Covid.

Whether Big Bend is forced to close for a third time this year remains to be seen.

“We have been told by both region and Washington that if there are justifications for reducing services, they will consider them and they will try to support us,” Krumenaker said. “The critical thing is we need to have facts and we need to justify it and we need to show mitigations we have considered and implemented. If we’re at the end of that line and there’s nothing else we can do other than cutback, I’m optimistic they will allow me to cutback.”

Just this week, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, urged President-elect Biden to extend his mask-wearing mandate, initially announced as applying to all federal buildings, to federally managed public lands as well.

Grijalva evidently had not been apprised of the Covid situation across Interior, as in his letter Tuesday to Biden he noted that “roughly 150 National Park Service employees tested positive for COVID-19 between March and September.”

While Interior officials early this year were slow to approve some park closures due to Covid — Grand Canyon National Park was the most notable case — Grijalva hopes the Biden administration will rely on Park Service superintendents to make prudent decisions when it comes to battling the disease.

“It is also vital that your administration reinstate the authority for park superintendents to close sites or sections of parks in response to COVID-19 outbreaks and meaningfully consult with local communities regarding increased public access and COVID-19 risks,” Grijalva said in his letter to the president-elect.