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No red rock respite from COVID-19 as new health order for Moab puts tourism in limbo

Directive also affects Grand, Emery and Carbon counties

SHARE No red rock respite from COVID-19 as new health order for Moab puts tourism in limbo

People gather to watch the sunset at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Southeast Utah Health Department issued a public health order Tuesday directing all restaurants, bars and movie theaters to close for 30 days in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The order also said that all overnight and short-term lodging facilities be rented or leased to only “essential” or primary residents of Carbon, Emery and Grand counties, calling into question how red rock tourism will fare.

Not only does the order advise residents to restrict travel, it cites the threat posed by the region’s tourist hotspots that attract millions of visitors every year and even now continue to draw people in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The order also cites the limited resources of health care facilities within the region.

Brady Bradford, health department director, said the order is in the best interest of residents. There are no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in any of the impacted counties.

“But I feel like if we don’t take action now, our residents will suffer, our health care system will suffer,” he said. “If we take enough action now we will spread out the impact of the disease over many months,” he said during a Facebook streaming conference.

Restaurants are on a “soft” closure and can do take out or drive-thru food service. Grocery stores and convenience stores remain open.

For outdoor recreation, Bradford’s order directs that no camp can be located within 200 yards of another camp and no camp can host more than 10 visitors. At some point those camps will be closed. He added his agency is coordinating with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service on coming restrictions on federal lands.

“At this point we are asking people to suspend their visits,” he said, adding that new reservations for any type of lodging are restricted to residents or people in the region for work purposes.

The directive comes a day after executives of the 17-bed Moab Regional Hospital implored Gov. Gary Herbert to shut down all nonessential businesses in the city, including hotels and restaurants, and if possible Arches National Park out of fear tourism will stoke the spread of the coronavirus.

A letter Monday signed by four hospital executives details concerns over anticipated lodging for the upcoming weekend at anywhere from 75% to 90% of capacity.

“This will bring approximately 5,500-6,000 people from all over the country, including areas where there is community spread of COVID-19,” the letter says. “Although the desert around Moab is vast, the town itself is small — cruise ship small — with similar isolation and limitations.”

The letter emphasizes the already pressing concern over how to meet local needs in the community in the event of an epidemic.

“As a 17-bed critical access hospital, we have no ICU and minimal capability to care for critical respiratory patients. Additionally, we are now concerned that tourism will drive the spread of SARS-CoV-2.”

The letter said not enough is being done to counter the spread of the virus.

“Please. Do. More. Now,” it says.

The letter was signed by Jen Sadoff, CEO, Dr. Angie Alexander, chief of staff, Dr. Paul Reay, emergency department chairman, and Dr. Dylan Cole, chief medical officer.

The coronavirus also led Zion National Park officials to announce suspension of shuttle service indefinitely, but the park will be open to vehicles as long as parking is available.

A statement by park spokeswoman Alyssa Baltrus said that once parking lots are full, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive will close and then open intermittently as parking spaces become available, most likely between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

“The health and safety of people visiting and working at Zion National Park is our priority. We are working with the National Park Service Office of Public Health and the U.S. Public Health Service to closely monitor the coronavirus situation,” she said.

No national park or state park closures have been announced in Utah, but worries abound as the spring tourism season ramps up and crowds become an inevitability.

“This is very fluid. Because it is fluid we can’t speculate what will happen. It is a moving target,” said Eugene Swalberg, spokesman for the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation. All campgrounds remain open but six visitor centers at state parks are closed: Antelope Island, Dead Horse Point, Goblin Valley, Great Salt Lake Marina, Utah Lake and Wasatch State.

The parks division is cleaning high-traffic areas and implementing protocols to minimize contact between state park employees and the public.

A letter by a coalition of rural elected leaders, however, urged restraint in the actions taken by Herbert due to the impacts on the economy.

“We must look at these numbers (of the pandemic) and ignore the pandemonium and political pressure. We must do the right thing now or else we will extend this pandemic of deep fear in the coming months,” the letter Tuesday to Herbert said.

“Every action you make henceforth that disrupts our economy and way of life will do irreparable harm. As elected officials in the state of Utah we ask you to discontinue this path of destruction that has already proven to be devastating to our state and nation,” it read.

The letter was signed by multiple elected officials from Iron, Garfield, Uintah, Kane, Piute and Beaver counties.

The concern over contracting the virus is sending tectonic shifts across the hospitality and tourism industry, invoking significant changes.

Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said the agency has suspended any marketing campaigns for tourism.

“Travel is not what people are thinking about. We have suspended our broadcast marketing,” she said. “All of that is on a prolonged pause until we can get physical safety stabilized.”


At Zion, park officials there are taking precautions, including creating virtual visitor centers in lieu of staffed buildings, and putting all wilderness permits online. Park rangers will be available in real time to answer phone calls and emails during regular business hours for information and trip planning.

Baltrus said there are signs throughout the park with phone numbers and email contact information.

Nationally, the park service closed Golden Gate National Recreation Area — which includes Alcatraz Island and the Presidio Visitor Center — effective through April 7 due to county issued shelter-in-place orders.

Other closures include the Washington Monument at the National Mall, the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island.

Varela said even as tourism is taking a severe hit in Utah and around the globe, it is a challenge people will weather, particularly in the Beehive State.

“We will definitely rebound. I think the question that we are all struggling through right now is how long it will take and what are the right steps to minimize the agony,” she said. “Obviously, health is the priority, but we also be thinking about how we will restore a healthy economy.”

As hotels limit visits and national park closures are urged, Varela said the key to muddling through the coronavirus is working together.

“We all need to be innovative, we need to be collaborative and we need to be patient as we sort through public policy that none of us have ever done before.”