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Tourism to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks is humming along this summer despite the pandemic, but it appears that out-of-staters are bringing more than just their money with them.
Nonresidents make up at least 20% of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 in two Montana counties bordering those parks, according to the latest data from the state's health department. Both Gallatin and Flathead counties had a combined 80 nonresidents who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The news comes as Yellowstone announced last week that two concession workers and three visitors had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Tourism has a "meaningful impact" on the case load in the two Montana counties, according to Jim Murphy, a communicable disease specialist at the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.
"These folks come to Montana because we are a tourist destination and they can leave the infection here," Murphy said. "Some may have acquired the infection here as well."
Murphy says some of the cases also stem from people visiting family who live near the parks.
Montana is one of only a handful of states to publicly track nonresident cases. That's because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention require nonresidents who contract COVID-19 be added to the total of their own home state, not the one they were visiting.
In a June press conference announcing the tracking of nonresident cases, Gov. Steve Bullock said it was important for Montanans to know how big of a role tourism plays in the uptick in cases.
"It's in the best interest of folks in our state to know if someone has the virus in their community even if they are only there for a short time," he said.
The data is incomplete, though. It doesn't track those who visited Montana and later tested positive for the novel coronavirus once they returned home. That said, Murphy stresses that nonresidents make up only 5% of the total cases statewide. That should calm the urge among some to curse all of the out-of-state license plates entering Montana this summer.
"I think a lot of people look at it that way – that all these cases of COVID are being brought in from out of state," Murphy said. "But we don't believe that to be the case."
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.