SALT LAKE CITY — Alisa and Ryan Frost are one of many families loading up bags, packing their vehicles and heading out on vacation this Memorial Day weekend — one of the busiest times of the year for national and state park visitation.
While this Memorial Day is different from past years in that business has slowed or stalled in much of the state because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the state parks and many of the national parks are open, albeit with modified policies and restrictions in place.
The Frost family set out for Palisade State Park Thursday morning, beckoned onward by blue skies and sunshine streaked streets.
Alisa Frost said it’s their family’s first trip in some time. They were supposed to fly to Venice in June for a cruise, but it was canceled. Now, they are looking forward to getting out of the house.
“There’s not a lot to do right now,” she said. “Now we are scrambling trying to put together weekend trips where we can get away.”
Utah is currently experiencing a “concerning” amount of fatal crashes compared to previous years, according to Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Nick Street.
Eight-six people have already died on Utah’s roads this year, Street said, which is the highest number at this point in the year since 2017.
Considering traffic has been reduced almost 50% at certain points during coronavirus state-at-home directives, “the numbers are significant,” said Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason Thursday morning at an event kicking off this year’s “100 Safest Days” of driving.
According to Gleason, the increased fatalities don’t make a lot of sense.
Street said there’s been a bit of a behavior shift for drivers, perhaps because they see open roads and “get a lead foot.”
Gleason said it has been jarring for some people to adjust back to being in traffic on the freeways.
“Give yourself a chance to acclimate. Give yourself a chance to get familiar with driving around other vehicles again,” he said. “Whether that is one day or a week, take the time and introduce yourself at the rate you are comfortable.”
Street said many fatal crashes are contingent on the basics like driving impaired, exceeding the speed limit, distracted driving and not wearing a seat belt. He urged drivers to dial into the basics as they travel these summer months.
Troopers are also ramping up enforcement efforts to counter some of these issues, Street said. The Utah Highway Patrol issued 41 drunken driving citations last weekend. And a multitude of law agencies are pooling together this Memorial Day weekend to provide additional shifts to scan Utah’s roads for DUIs, reckless behavior and other infractions.
Summer months also generally see double the fatalities compared to the rest of the year, Gleason said.
“For most of us, driving is the most dangerous thing we will do all day, but we take it for granted because we do it so often,” he said. “The message we want to get across is it only takes a second to take your focus off the road and the results can be catastrophic.”
State and national parks
From sweeping cottonwood tree canopies to red rock cliffs tinted pink in the morning light, Utah’s state parks are all open this Memorial Day weekend.
Not all of the national parks have reopened, however, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Zion National Park recently started offering some access with restrictions. Arches and Canyonlands will reopen on May 29 following what would normally be a busy Memorial Day weekend.
As for state parks, officials are anticipating a lot of visitors, though each park has rules in place to discourage swarms of people, said Eugene Swalberg, public affairs coordinator for Utah State Parks.
Despite Memorial Day weekend’s popularity, it’s not exactly business as usual. Parks will stress social distancing, high-touch surfaces will be cleaned, congested areas will be diffused, and the number of visitors will be limited, he said.
“Leading up to Memorial Day, on a number of different occasions we’ve had some of our state parks reach a predetermined capacity, and that capacity is different at each state park,” Swalberg said. “When that park reaches that capacity, they will restrict folks from coming in until the number of visitors is below capacity.”
Overall though, he said, visiting state parks is a good way to practice social distancing because of the open spaces.
Visitors can also pay online thanks to a new program implemented over the last couple of months, lessening interactions with park staff and the time spent waiting at the gate to get inside, he explained.
Swalberg also encouraged parkgoers to practice safety measures like wearing life jackets and helmets while recreating.
According to a news release from Utah State Parks, there have been three water-related deaths in the state within the past two weeks. None of the victims wore life jackets when the incidents occurred.
“Life jackets are essential pieces of safety gear for anyone venturing out onto the water,” said Ty Hunter, Utah State Parks boating program coordinator. “Nationally, 80% of people who drowned in boating accidents would have survived had they been wearing a life jacket.”
Visitors should also know that Utah law requires children under 13 years of age to wear a life jackets. There must also be at least one life jacket per person aboard a boat, according to the news release.
Lower gas prices, and maybe fewer drivers
The average price for a gallon of regular gas in Utah is $2.14 as of Thursday — a little more than a dollar decrease from this time last year.
This is the lowest gas price seen heading into Memorial Day weekend for roughly 20 years, according to Sergio Avila, AAA public relations specialist for Utah.
Despite the low gas prices, he said AAA anticipates there will be fewer people hitting the roads this holiday, thanks to physical distancing guidelines and the travel restrictions still put in place in some areas.
Avila said this year’s Memorial Day could prove to be a record low for traveler volume, coming in lower even than 2009’s 31 million travelers during the Great Recession.
He recommended drivers who do travel this Memorial Day weekend to ensure their vehicle is ready for summer travel, like checking their battery, particularly if they’ve been working from home and not driving for some time.