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Utah’s vacation hotspots still seeing out-of-state travel — which makes some residents uneasy

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Park City is pictured on Friday, July 14, 2017.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

PARK CITY — Not long after the first case of COVID-19 hit Utah, Summit County, home to the international ski destination Park City, emerged as the state’s hotspot.

And almost a month later, the number of cases per capita in the northern Utah county still rivals some of the hardest hit areas of New York, even after officials enacted a sweeping stay-at-home order that restricted large gatherings and asked out-of-state travelers to stay away.

“It appears to be a fairly common phenomenon in some of the ski towns in the West. And we’re no different,” said Dr. Richard Bullough, Summit County health director. “The data really strongly supports that the first cases that we saw were all travel related.”

Although Bullough said there hasn’t been a travel-related COVID-19 case in Summit County for over a week, his office continues to get calls from concerned residents uneasy about people from across the country coming to wait out the pandemic in Park City.

“I’m really surprised with how many renters I got, probably around the same time Summit County closed,” said Elise St John, whose company St John’s Property Management serves 58 clients in the Park City area.

She said roughly half of her clients who own second homes are in town, which is about average — for a normal year.

“I can see why we’re the hotspot,” she said. “I had a renter coming in from New York, and I didn’t really want to tour the property with him. ... They’re supposed to do that 14-day quarantine, but they don’t. It’s kind of crazy.”

St John, who has already had to cut hours for all of her employees, said turning away business would be almost unthinkable. The closure of Utah’s ski areas was a devastating blow to Park City’s real estate and property management industry, which only a month ago was a cornerstone of the resort community. But in the weeks since Park City regressed into a ghost town, St John said three property management companies have reached out, asking if she wanted to buy their clients.

“It was awful,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As for the companies still admitting renters, St John said there’s a certain amount of guilt that now comes with doing business.

“I really don’t think people want to talk about it,” she told the Deseret News. “And I think it’s kind of weird that they don’t. I mean, this is our small town. It’s definitely something to be concerned about.”

A few miles west of Park City, one vacation hotspot took a big step to combat the potential risks of out-of-state travel.

On April 1, Alta Mayor Harris Sondak issued an emergency proclamation that mandated a 14-day quarantine for all out-of-state travelers upon arrival. Anyone seen violating the order could be charged with a class B misdemeanor.

“As far as I know I have not heard of any reports of a lack of compliance,” said Sondak, who stressed his intent was not to be punitive, but to encourage safe behavior.

So far it’s working — in the week since Sondak issued the proclamation, a number of people have come to their second homes from out of state and not one case of COVID-19 was reported.

St John wants to see a similar order in Summit County — one that allows property managers to conduct business as usual while minimizing the risks associated with out-of-state travel.

“I can’t tell these people to stay in their homes after they rent from me,” she said. “But if it was an order, then I could say something.”

Despite the concerns from Summit County residents, Bullough says most of the cases he hears about are anecdotal and don’t point to a large, underlying issue.

“While we remain concerned and while the message is still ‘stay away, do not come to Summit County,’ I don’t think it’s as big of an issue as is being identified by some in our community,” he told the Deseret News.

In southern Utah, residents of Washington County have raised similar concerns, although much like Summit County, officials don’t think out of state travel is having much of an impact, if any, on the current number of COVID-19 cases.

“We want to be concerned and sensitive to these complaints, but we simply don’t have a way to measure that right now,” said David Heaton, Southwest Utah Public Health Department public information officer. “Right now it’s only anecdotal. But those can have value.”

On Wednesday Gov. Gary Herbert issued an executive order requiring all out-of-state travelers to register with the state, rolling out a new plan to keep tabs on the state’s borders and anyone that flies into Salt Lake City International Airport with Utah as their final destination.

Now, most people driving into Utah will receive a text message telling them to register their name, contact information and health status.

While Herbert still says it’s OK for anyone without COVID-19 to enter Utah, Bullough has a strong message for those coming from out of state to stay at their vacation homes in Summit County.

“We remain one of the highest counties in the country per capita for infection rates,” he said. “This is not the place to travel if you want to try and escape COVID-19.”