Ski resorts closing as Summit County sees community spread of coronavirus; state total at 19 cases

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist, and Rich Bullough, executive director of the Summit County Health Department, announce Utah's first community spread case of COVID-19, in a Summit County man, at a news conference on Saturday, March 14, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here.

Park City • The COVID-19 diagnosis of a doorman at a popular bar on Park City’s Main Street is a turning point in Utah, as the state documents its first community transmission of the coronavirus.

And with the proximity of Summit County, residents in the Salt Lake Valley “should assume the potential of community transmission,” said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department.

By the end of the day, the Utah Department of Health had tallied 19 cases of COVID-19, up from six on Friday.

Salt Lake County had three cases Friday, counted two more Friday night, and tallied nine new cases Saturday. While none officially reflected community spread, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox agreed with Rupp in a livestream broadcast late Saturday. "It’s very likely that community spread has been happening,” Cox said.

He added: “We know we are going to see the rates of infection increase and that will be commonplace. We know eventually, unfortunately, there will be people who don’t make it through this. I want to be really honest about that — and I think we have to be willing to have those hard conversations.”

But for most people, the illness will be mild, he noted, urging Utahns to be kind. “The government can’t solve all this,” he said. “... It really is about friends and neighbors coming together and working together."

At a news conference Saturday, state and Summit County health officials urged Utahns to continue their mitigation efforts, such as staying home when ill and practicing good hygiene. Community spread means there are patients for whom the source of infection is unknown.

“This confirmed community spread really changes the picture,” said Rich Bullough, executive director of the Summit County Health Department. “Your actions will impact your neighbors. Your actions will impact the community.”

While Bullough said the county was not recommending closing the ski resorts, he said it would be “prudent” to restrict travel to Summit County. “If you have the option of not traveling to Summit County right now, it would be reasonable to do so,” he said.

And within hours, Park City Mountain Resort announced it will will cease operations Sunday through March 22. Rob Katz, the CEO of the ski destination’s parent company, Vail Resorts, announced online that all 15 of the company’s North American locations are closing for the week.

Vail Resorts will “use that time to reassess our approach for the rest of the season,” Katz wrote, adding that all scheduled employees, seasonal and year-round, will be paid during the eight-day closure.

Shortly afterward, Alterra Mountain Company announced it would be closing its 15 North American resorts — including Deer Valley Mountain Resort in Park City — starting Sunday and until further notice. Brighton Resort and Alterra-owned Solitude Mountain Resort, in Big Cottonwood Canyon, also are closing Sunday. So is Alta and Snowbird, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and Eagle Point, near Beaver, both resorts announced Saturday.

That makes six Utah ski resorts that are shutting down for now.

Also on Saturday, the Davis County Health Department reported a second person in the county has been diagnosed with COVID-19. The patient, between the ages of 18 and 60, was exposed to the virus while traveling out of the country and self-isolated once at home, the department said.

The University of Utah sent its campus community a notice Saturday evening that an employee at its counseling center tested positive and is now self-isolating. The employee, who is also a graduate student, was on campus briefly during spring break, but had no contact with students. It is not clear if this is among the cases already reported in Salt Lake County or if this is a new one.

Of the 14 confirmed cases in Salt Lake County, 11 are adults and three are children. Two children went to school when feeling ill, potentially exposing Hunter High School in West Valley City and Entheos Academy, a charter school with locations in Magna and Kearns. All students and staff at those schools will need to quarantine at home until March 27.

The doorman at The Spur Bar & Grill was one of three Utahns who tested positive on Friday night, state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said at the Saturday news conference. Also between the ages of 18 and 60, he is recovering at home, Dunn said.

He did report to work while he had symptoms, but officials believe the biggest potential risk is to his co-workers — about 20 of them, according to Bullough — rather than the hundreds of customers he encountered fleetingly at the bar.

Anyone who visited the bar since March 6, health officials said, should consider whether they have symptoms of COVID-19 — fever, cough, shortness of breath — and, if they do, call their health care provider.

Merchants on Park City’s Old Main Street, just a few doors uphill from The Spur, said on Saturday that business in the last couple of weeks has been slower than usual for March.

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Spur Bar & Grill in Park City is closed after an employee contracted COVID-19. It was announced on Saturday, March 14, 2020, and was the first case of community spread found in Utah.

“It’s not as crazy as it usually is,” said Traci Prothro, owner of Prothro Gallery. She credits that reduced foot traffic, and a decline in sales, to general fears about coronavirus.

Prothro pointed out one barometer: The China Bridge parking garage on Swede Alley, behind her gallery and The Spur, was only half full Saturday. On a typical March Saturday, she said, it would be packed.

“You still see people walking around,” Prothro said. “People come in and say, ‘Can we use your Purell?’”

But Dianne Merchant, a fine art consultant at David Beavis Fine Art, next door to Prothro’s gallery, said she felt the day seemed “absolutely normal,” and that the drop-off in traffic is typical as the ski season winds down.

Angela Moschetta, a businesswoman and community activist in Park City, said she believes government and business leaders in Summit County haven’t been doing enough to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s been a real resistance to take this seriously here,” Moschetta said, “no doubt because of everyone’s economic and financial fears.”

Among other things, Moschetta said, she had called for Park City’s ski resorts to close the season early. She said the moves by Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain to close its locations, including Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley, will have ripple effects across the country.

Without such closures, she said, “we are still going to have willfully oblivious tourists and willfully ignorant spring breakers trying to get the most out of their vacation spend.”

Still, Moschetta, the co-founder of Future Park City, which she called a “civic engagement initiative,” noted the impact. “People don’t make money here all 52 weeks of the year. You look at those compressed earnings windows, and the fact that they’re getting cut off earlier, and there are some very real concerns.”

Merchant did note that “the people that are here have got nothing to do now,” with the closures of event spaces and cultural events, like the Egyptian Theatre down the street.

Moschetta said she had talked to bar owners about taking precautions, like using disposable glasses, before Friday night’s discovery of The Spur’s doorman’s case. O.P. Rockwell, a bar and music venue at the top of Old Main, canceled Thursday’s performances.

A walk through the Park City’s Fresh Market shows locals are concerned. The self-serve hot-food bar is out of commission for now. The shelves for toilet paper are empty, and the shelves for soup, pasta and hand soap are quite picked over.

Moschetta said she’s worried that calls for washing hands and “social distancing” will not be enough to battle coronavirus. And she’s not afraid of being labeled an alarmist. “If three months from now, we all seem crazy for having taken these steps, that means that the steps worked,” she said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)