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. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.
Zion National Park is the biggest attraction in southwestern Utah, and Lori and Tim Sherbeck don’t want anyone to go there for a while.
“We would really love to see the park close down for a couple weeks,” Lori Sherbeck said, “a couple months, whatever it takes, just to control the crowd.”
The Sherbecks, who live in nearby Rockville, worry park visitors are helping spread coronavirus in the area. Zion National Park and the surrounding towns, especially adjacent Springdale, are some of the last destinations in the United States still largely open to the public and not discouraging visitors.
The National Park Service announced Friday evening on Twitter that Arches and Canyonlands national parks would be closing “until further notice.” The closures, effective Saturday, apply to all visitors.
Zion National Park and the state’s two other national parks could be next.
Gov. Gary Herbert on Friday afternoon asked all Utahns to stay home as much as possible and said he would work with the federal government to review whether to close the national parks. He said state parks would be open only to people who live in each park’s respective county.
Springdale Mayor Stan Smith, who operates the Bumbleberry Inn, attended online meetings about the coronavirus Friday morning.
In an email to The Salt Lake Tribune after the meetings, Smith did not address whether to keep Zion National Park open but said he was encouraging everyone to follow disease prevention guidelines. Hotel occupancy has declined, he wrote.
“Some hotels have shut down completely,” Smith said. “Of those open, some have reported not having any guests for the past week. The streets of Springdale are pretty empty.”
One Boulder City, Nev., man told the Boulder City Review that he developed symptoms of the coronavirus on March 19 after he and his wife returned from Zion National Park.
“We got back (home) and throughout the day I began to feel feverish and sore,” Manny Franco told the newspaper.
Cheri McRae, who owns Zion Jeep Tours with her husband, said she didn’t learn about Franco’s diagnosis until his story was shared on Facebook. No one in government or public health issued any notices.
“Where all did this guy go?” McRae asked Friday. “He felt sick the morning he left Zion or Springdale. So how many people did he infect?”
There are no public coronavirus numbers specific to the towns around the park or even Washington County. The Utah Department of Health reports the public health department that covers southwest Utah has had 10 positive COVID-19 cases as of Friday afternoon.
The state also reported that a woman under age 60 from southwest Utah died Thursday. She is Utah’s second death from the coronavirus.
McRae and her husband decided almost two weeks ago to close their business until the outbreak subsides. She said they considered offering Jeep tours with fewer customers in the vehicles but were unsure even that would meet the recommendation of keeping people 6 feet from one another. Besides, McRae said, she couldn’t find enough cleaning supplies to sanitize the vehicles after each ride.
“We wanted to maybe set an example,” McRae said. “I know it’s a difficult position that every small business is in to either close their doors or maybe go out of business, but we felt we could go ahead” and shut down temporarily.
As for Zion National Park, McRae said it should stay open only if visitors can be made to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. She doesn’t know how park staffers, who may themselves be trying to keep their distance, can ensure that.
Zion National Park posted a photo on its Facebook page March 21 of crowds on the trail to Angels Landing. Three days later, the park closed that and some other popular trails.
Then Wednesday, the park posted more photos of visitors not observing social distancing and made another plea to the public to heed the CDC guidelines. In another post Thursday, park staffers reported vehicle traffic had declined in Zion Canyon the day before. The shuttles have ceased operating in the canyon.
The park’s search and rescue teams helped two hikers with leg or ankle injuries Thursday, according to a news release. Park staffers also reported its parking lot filled on Thursday.
The park is not charging entrance fees and has closed the campgrounds and visitor center in an effort to reduce the contact rangers have with the public and so visitors don’t bottleneck.
Some parks elsewhere, including Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains, closed at the request of local managers.
Prior to Friday’s NPS decision, health officials in southeastern Utah asked that Arches and Canyonlands national parks close. Both parks are adjacent to Moab, where city and county officials asked tourists to stay away.
Paul Anderson, president of the Association of National Park Rangers and the former superintendent of Denali National Park & Preserve, said Zion presents a tough scenario. The National Park Service works with communities, and Springdale may feel it’s safe to keep the park open even if national parks and adjacent towns elsewhere have shut down.
It’s not unreasonable to expect park rangers “to take a certain amount of risk in accomplishing the public’s work,” Anderson said. “One might expect they would be exposed to some things that some private business person would not.
“However, the National Park Service and ANPR want to protect employee and public safety to the greatest extent possible.”
There’s no coronavirus testing available in Springdale. Residents have to drive 40 miles to St. George to take the test. That obstacle makes the Sherbecks suspect there are COVID-19 cases around Zion National Park of which no one is aware.
Tim Sherbeck also worries about park visitors getting injured on hiking or biking trails during the pandemic. The injured could consume what few medical resources Springdale and Rockville have or expose first responders or health care workers to the disease.
The Sherbecks, both 65, are retired and have largely been staying at home during the pandemic. But Tim Sherbeck rode his bicycle into the park Wednesday. He turned around when he saw the crowd at the entrance to The Narrows, a river hike where the walls of Zion Canyon converge.
“I couldn’t believe how many people were in The Narrows,” he said.