Keystone Braces For COVID Threat From Rushmore Fireworks Crowd

May 11, 2020

Credit Seth Tupper / SDPB

President Trump’s plan to attend a fireworks display July 3 at Mount Rushmore National Memorial has some people worried in the small tourist town at the base of the mountain. 

Lynette Gohsman is the president of the town board of Keystone, population 337. She said past fireworks shows at Mount Rushmore filled her town with visitors. This time, she worries the visitors might bring COVID-19. 

“I think we’re all concerned about that,” Gohsman said. 

South Dakota’s peak of COVID-19 infections is expected to arrive in mid- to late-June. That’s a week or two before the fireworks show. 

In the governor’s office, Senior Adviser and Policy Director Maggie Seidel said options for preventing the spread of COVID-19 are being considered. One option is making a limited number of tickets to the fireworks show available through a lottery. 

“What if the restriction is that people can watch exclusively from their cars? What if they have to practice social distancing? What if it’s just TV only?” Seidel said. 

But in Keystone, they're expecting big crowds, regardless of official restrictions. Even if people can’t get into the memorial grounds, they could watch from roadsides or hiking trails, or anyplace that affords a view of the sky above the memorial. Past shows have attracted thousands of spectators. 

Tammy Hunsaker runs a lodge in Keystone and said people are booking trips to see the fireworks. But Hunsaker said past fireworks shows were a headache for some locals and visitors. 

“Traffic comes to a standstill at about 10 o’clock that morning and doesn’t move,” Hunsaker said. “And so it’s not an outstanding day business-wise for our community.” 

The town board president, Gohsman, said the board is renting 12 portable toilets to place around town on July 3. The board has also passed a resolution urging local businesses and citizens to follow the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus. And she said town leaders are talking with state and federal officials about other ways to handle the influx of people on July 3 and prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

There hasn’t been a Fourth of July-themed fireworks show at Mount Rushmore since 2009. The National Park Service stopped allowing the annual shows because embers from the fireworks were igniting small fires that had to be put out by firefighters, and because exploded fireworks shells were littering the memorial grounds, while chemicals in the fireworks were polluting the memorial’s well water. 

Some in South Dakota’s tourism industry wanted the shows to return, because photos and video highlights of the fireworks are considered valuable advertising. So Gov. Kristi Noem asked President Donald Trump to bring the fireworks back. That resulted in an environmental review by the National Park Service.  

The review concluded last month. The Park Service said there will be no significant environmental impact from the fireworks.  

The Park Service said firefighters will be on hand to put out any fires, and the show could be canceled at the last minute if weather and ground conditions make the fire risk too high. Regarding the water pollution, the Park Service said the contamination hasn’t reached a level that threatens public health, and monitoring of the contamination will continue. On the topic of litter, the Park Service said the fireworks vendor will be required to do a thorough cleanup. 

Trump said in an interview aired by the Dan Bongino Show on May 1 that he will attend the July 3 show. 

- Seth Tupper is SDPB's business and economic development reporter.