“As we do in all circumstances when an employee attests to having covid-19, we work with our public health officials to ensure all guidance from the CDC is followed, such as identifying close contacts and cleaning areas as appropriate,” Goodwin said. “The Secretary was recently at the Washington Monument. In working with our public officials and out of an abundance of caution, a couple of employees have quarantined resulting in a temporary workforce reduction at the monument and its temporary closure.”
The secretary’s diagnosis Wednesday forced the cancellation of a large Interior Department holiday party scheduled for Thursday night, and it is raising concerns about his deputy’s plans to visit two national parks next week. Deputy Secretary Katharine MacGregor, who is headed to Wyoming on Monday, has asked National Park Service staff to drive her between Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks - a trip that should take roughly three hours by car. She has also asked staff to provide tours of Yellowstone for four days, according to several federal officials briefed on the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
MacGregor’s trip “will move forward as planned” because the department’s team of public health professionals examined her recent activities and determined she “has not had close contact with Secretary Bernhardt as described by CDC guidance,” Goodwin said. He added, “the health and safety of the public and our employees is our top priority.”
“Interior has an incredible team of more than 60 public health professionals on staff that have been leading the Department’s pandemic response efforts with the Secretary and other members of leadership over the past year,” he said, adding that since the Washington Monument reopened Oct. 1, no Park Service staffer working there has tested positive for the coronavirus.
MacGregor will visit newly renovated staff housing in Yellowstone, officials said, which has been a major administration priority. Interior’s assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, Rob Wallace, who lives in Wyoming and is working remotely, may accompany MacGregor on her park tour, officials said.
Bernhardt, who tested positive for the coronavirus before he was to attend a Cabinet meeting with President Trump on Wednesday, was in the proximity of several Interior officials in the past week. Political appointees had meetings Monday and Tuesday, according to two federal officials, which culminated with a reception with food and drink in the secretary’s office.
Several of the appointees walked through the building to the secretary’s office without wearing face coverings, according to one of the officials. Some of the highest-ranking officials at Interior — including Bernhardt and MacGregor — have not consistently worn masks, according to two individuals.
The president and several of his deputies have continued to hold holiday parties with lengthy guest lists this month, despite the risk of contagion. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hosted hundreds of guests, many of whom were unmasked, for indoor gatherings with music, drinks and photo lines. He canceled the last planned party on Wednesday after he was exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus and entered quarantine.
Interior’s leaders had planned a rooftop gathering Thursday, with propane heaters financed by donors, but canceled it after Bernhardt’s diagnosis.
The shuttering of the Washington Monument, where visitors normally crowd into a small elevator to ascend to the top, has implications for D.C.'s tourist industry. The administration first closed it in mid-March, then reopened it in October. Under pandemic procedures, a limited number of people are allowed in the elevator at any one time, and they must be spaced six feet apart.
“I hate to say it, but I told you so,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s representative in the House. "Think about the elevator in the monument and how closed-in it is. Who was thinking about the staff that was giving tours with the secretary?”
At least four Park Service employees in the region have tested positive for the virus, one of them requiring hospitalization, said Norton, who wrote to acting Park Service Director Margaret Everson nine days ago asking that she close the monument and all other enclosed park sites in the capital region out of concern for employee health. She did not receive a response.
A notice posted on the Park Service’s website reads, “Consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and in coordination with the NPS Office of Public Health, the Washington Monument is temporarily closed due to a reduction in its workforce resulting from a potential COVID-19 exposure.”
“NPS is working to staff the Washington Monument at the appropriate levels to maintain the safety of its operations for visitors and employees,” it adds.
Bernhardt has led one other private tour of the monument since it reopened, on Nov. 16.
Some Park Service staffers and conservation groups have criticized the secretary’s push to keep parks open during the pandemic.
When virus infections first surged in March, the agency closed sites with interior spaces such as the Washington Monument, Statue of Liberty National Monument, Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Independence National Historic Park.
But many of the most popular national parks, including Joshua Tree and Grand Canyon, remained open. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez joined a park superintendent in requesting NPS close the Grand Canyon in March.
“The Navajo Nation is fighting an outbreak of Covid-19 on the Navajo Indian Reservation ... in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah,” Nez wrote administration officials.
The park remained open until April 1, even though unmasked visitors crowded at overlooks and bumped into each other on narrow trails. It reopened a month and-a-half later.
The nearby Navajo Nation has since been devastated by the coronavirus, with more than 20,000 total cases and more than 730 deaths.
Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that supports the park system, said in an email that the Washington Monument incident is an example of how “Bernhardt has been careless and reckless managing our national parks and public lands throughout this pandemic.”
“His irresponsible behavior has put countless park rangers in harm’s way, further demonstrating his failure to put the health and safety of park visitors and rangers first,” she added. “To use our parks as his own personal playground is shameful, and a slap in the face to the American people.”
Bernhardt is not the only interior secretary to lead private tours of the nation’s most famous park sites. His predecessor Ryan Zinke brought friends and family members on park trips across the country, touring places from the basement of the Lincoln Memorial to California’s Channel Islands National Park.
While department officials are now reassessing McGregor’s itinerary for her upcoming Wyoming trip, initial plans called for Park Service employees to pick her up in Bozeman, Mont., and drive her to Yellowstone, as well as provide transportation at times during her stay.
MacGregor has asked to go snowshoeing during her visit and to be transported to Jackson Hole Airport. Transportation options include a snow coach or van, both of which would be enclosed, or a snowmobile, which is not.
Some employees at both Yellowstone and Grand Teton have expressed concerns about coming into close contact with MacGregor during her trip, according to three officials.
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks Chair Phil Francis, whose group represents both Park Service retirees as well as current officials, noted that “while we hope the secretary will recover,” the fact that he visited staff at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in early May and “there was no sign of the secretary wearing a mask or social distancing” raises concerns.
“It’s truly unbelievable that Secretary Bernhardt and his staff would plan a trip to Yellowstone at a time when the pandemic is raging,” Francis said in an interview. “The lack of concern for others is astounding.”
Jacqueline Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, said park service staffers cannot refuse an order from a supervisor. “If they’re assigned by their supervisor to go pick these people up they have to do it,” Simon said.
MacGregor would not be the first high-ranking Interior official to visit Yellowstone under a lame-duck president. Then-Secretary Sally Jewell flew to the area just before Thanksgiving in 2016 to announce a two-year ban on new mining claims outside the park.