KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Face masks are once again required inside all buildings at Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting Tennessee counties within the park are considered high risk for COVID-19.
Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park are required to wear a mask inside all park buildings regardless of vaccination status. Masks are not required outdoors within the park.
Since the National Park Service (NPS) federal mask mandate was rescinded earlier this year, public lands managers were delegated the authority to make operational decisions based on site-level conditions, according to Dana Soehn, management assistant for the National Park Service.
The park is comprised of parts of Blount, Sevier and Cocke counties, all of which are rated at high risk of COVID-19 by the CDC as of Aug. 9. The NPS began using the CDC’s COVID-19 Community Levels metric in late February to allow individual parks to make decisions on masking based on local conditions.
“We have been continually monitoring the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker to ascertain current COVID-19 transmission levels within the six local counties that surround the Park to assess the need for operational changes,” Soehn said. “Per NPS policy and the Smokies Adaptive Operations COVID-19 Plan, masks are required in all federal buildings if one county within the park is in the HIGH transmission level for seven consecutive days.”
The CDC divides every county in the U.S. into three categories of COVID-19 risk: high, medium and low. The two North Carolina counties within the park boundaries, Swain and Haywood, are rated at medium risk as of Aug. 9.
According to Soehn, on Aug. 4, the transmission levels for Blount and Sevier Counties were recorded as HIGH.
Three data sets pertaining to COVID-19 are used by the CDC to determine the levels of community risk: new cases, hospital admissions and percent of beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. If conditions are “low or medium” then mask wearing is not required for staff, visitors, or others regardless of vaccination status.
“We will continue to monitor community transmission levels and if rates fall back to medium or low for Blount and Sevier Counties for seven consecutive days, we will remove the masking requirement,” NPS said in their statement.
The mask requirement within the park was first implemented in January 2021. It was dropped a few months later but returned in August 2021 as cases of the Omicron variant rose.