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More southeast Utah closures, as visitors flood San Rafael to camp

Wilderness therapy, considered essential, takes new clients daily

A hiker goes through the San Rafael Swell, in Emery County.
A hiker goes through the San Rafael Swell, in Emery County, in 2009.
Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — The Southeast Utah Health Department expanded its public health order Wednesday to include closure of hair and beauty salons, body art parlors and massage and tanning facilities and in a travel advisory asked people to suspend their recreation activities on public lands.

While the order clarifies that residents can camp in their own counties, it strongly encouraged people to revise their recreation plans, to stay home, and urged out-of-state visitors to leave. It covers Grand, Emery and Carbon counties.

With the closure of Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Grand County and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments in San Juan County, the outdoor recreation pressure has moved north to Emery County — home of the San Rafael Swell and popular bouldering action in Joe’s Valley.

Emery County residents are starting to complain over fear of the spread of the coronavirus in a mostly elderly community particularly vulnerable to the virus and in an area with limited medical resources.

“What we are trying to do as a smaller community is keep everyone safe,” said Wayne Huntington, manager of Stewart’s Market in Castle Dale.

“We are seeing quite a few people out there who are not from this area,” Huntington said. “My worry is with Moab and Arches shut off, the next best place to head is San Rafael. We are seeing people from out of town. I don’t know exactly why they are here.”

Huntington said he wishes people would follow Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s directive to stay safe and stay home.

“That would be my word of wisdom; just stay safe and stay home.”

The Bureau of Land Management, which manages the San Rafael Swell recreation area, said it is coordinating closely with the Southeast Utah Public Health Department to enforce the requirements in the public health order.

The agency emphasized that the order limits all overnight and short-term lodging facilities, including camping on public lands within Carbon, Emery and Grand counties to local residents. The order also states that no camp shall be located within 200 yards of another camp and no camp shall consist of more than 10 people.

BLM Utah rangers continue to work in the field and are enforcing local health directives.

But some locals are also expressing concerns over outdoor programs for troubled youth that are continuing to accept new clients from out of state.

There are 10 licensed outdoor youth programs in Utah, including Elements Wilderness Program in Huntington.

Andrew Powell, CEO of Elements, said the company is taking stringent measures to prevent transmission of the virus.

The program’s medical director approves applications for new clients based on travel and health history and each client is screened again at the director’s clinic during a physical exam before entering the program, he said.

“Once there, all new clients practice social distancing for a minimum of 14 days, right along with our staff, who follow the same guidelines on their off time as they do in the field,” Powell said.

Behavioral health services, he added, are classified as “essential” by the Department of Homeland Security.

The company operates under the licensing supervision of the Utah Department of Human Services.

Amanda Slater, director of the agency’s Office of Licensing, said no public health order has called for temporary closure of the programs and interstate travel is allowed under the state directive.

“These programs must operate with their local health departments’ orders and the state’s directives, and are expected to exercise heightened sanitation, hygiene and social distancing measures to the greatest extent possible,” she said.

The 10 outdoor therapy programs across Utah have the capacity to serve 715 youth, although the agency does not know actual current client capacity at this time.

Powell added that the Elements program also operates with the supervision and support of Emery County Sheriff’s Capt. Kyle Ekker, who is the office’s emergency manager.

“All this said, our biggest concern, and what we believe to be the biggest threat to our community, is not the few groups of five to eight clients and their staff who are operating under these stringent guidelines, but rather the huge caravans of people who have come out to the desert now from other parts of Utah, as well as states like Colorado or California who are visibly not taking any precautions,” Powell said.

He added the program clients and staff are doing everything they can to avoid them, but the visitors will shop in grocery stores and use community facilities.

“So we continue to take the utmost precautions for all those who don’t so we can help flatten the curve in our own community,” Powell said.

State and federal agencies have worked to create a clearinghouse on outdoor recreation to guide residents on what is available where. The resource guide is on the state website coronavirus.utah.gov under the resources tab.