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Just as Moab’s hotels, restaurants and guiding services were ramping up for the busy spring season earlier this month, the popular tourist destination shut down.
The ever-crowded campgrounds were gated. Restaurants were limited to take-out only. And hotels — which at any given time can lodge more people than the city’s entire population — were closed to nonresidents.
The restrictions came on March 16 at the order of the Southeast Utah Health Department, which oversees Grand, Emery and Carbon counties.
As of Thursday, the restrictions appear to have helped; there were still no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus within the health department’s jurisdiction, even as Utah’s total cases topped 400.
But tourists haven’t stopped arriving either. Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park remain open and all entrance fees were waived last week by order of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
Now the health department is asking the park service to order its own closures.
In a letter to the superintendent of the region’s parks, Southeast Utah Health Department Health Officer Bradon Bradford requested Thursday that the park service “consider implementing an indefinite closure” of Arches and Canyonlands.
Bradford noted an average of 700 vehicles visited Arches both days last weekend “with approximately 90% [being] from out of state.”
Park visitors not only risk transmitting or becoming infected with the coronavirus but increase the strain on Moab’s limited health care facilities if they injure themselves or need other medical attention, Bradford said.
Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus wrote a letter supporting the closure request in the “spirit of collaboration with our local health department and hospital.”
“Moab understands that a temporary closure of these Parks may be a disappointment to our local community, but we feel that such a step is in the best interest of our residents in the long term,” Niehaus said.
National Park fees were waived last week in part to protect park rangers and limit their exposure to the public, but Bernhardt didn’t discourage visitation, either.
“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” he said in a statement. “Our vast public lands that are overseen by the department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing.”
The National Park Service did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.
Keeping the parks open while health care and government officials are recommending people avoid nonessential travel can amount to “mixed messaging” said Moab City Council member Rani Derasary.
“Some people have talked about using the parks as a [way to practice social distancing] outside,” Derasary said. “I can understand the desire to do that, but it’s not helpful because it adds risk to our community.”
“Everybody now is being asked to do something in their local community,” she continued. “I think it’s respectful and responsible not only to do what your local community is asking, but — if for some reason you leave your community — that you be respectful of what the community where you’re going to is asking as well.”
Moab resident Joette Langianese, who is chairwoman of the Canyonlands Health Care Special Service District and the executive director of Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks, also said that keeping the park open sends the wrong message to would-be visitors.
“Closing the park will just be one more reason for people not to come here,” Langianese said, adding if people are still on the fence visiting Moab, they reschedule their plans.
“We're a small town,” she said. “We don't have the resources that you have in Salt Lake City or St. George or other big urban parts of the state, and we don't want to get sick because you came on your vacation.”
According to an analysis by the Daily Yonder, rural counties with recreation-based economies, like Grand County, are at a significantly higher risk of coronavirus outbreaks than their non-recreation counterparts.
Summit County, home to many of Utah’s ski resorts, has been particularly hard hit by the virus. The county issued Utah’s first shelter-in-place order on Wednesday, and all visitors have been asked to leave “as safely and quickly as possible.”
As fears of local coronavirus outbreaks grow in rural Utah, other health departments have made similar requests of federal land management agencies.
San Juan Public Health in San Juan County asked the park service to close Canyonlands, Hovenweep National Monument and Natural Bridges National Monument on Thursday.
The Bureau of Land Management closed its campgrounds and ranger stations in San Juan County earlier this week, and the Juab County Sheriff’s Office has asked the BLM to shut down the popular Little Sahara Recreation Area southwest of Salt Lake City on Thursday.
Most national park campgrounds and some state campgrounds had closed as of Thursday to comply with health department orders, but all national parks and state parks remained open for day use.
“We welcome people [to Moab] any other time,” Derasary said, “but now is not the time.”
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.