Central Utah just reported its first coronavirus case, but the region so far has kept the virus in check

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Capitol Reef National Park on Friday May 10, 2019.

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Jon Sabala’s motel and three restaurants in Torrey normally would be open by this time of year, lodging and feeding tourists coming to Capitol Reef National Park.

The businesses are closed not necessarily because of what’s in Torrey but because of what everyone fears — the coronavirus.

“It’s wise we are shut down,” Sabala said Tuesday. “Even though we have no cases, I don’t believe we want to have them.”

Hours after that phone interview, the Central Utah Public Health Department reported its first COVID-19 case. It was the last public health department in Utah without one.

The district covers six counties — Juab, Millard, Sanpete, Sevier, Piute and Wayne. It’s a stretch that runs from the Nevada line east more than 200 miles and has about 80,000 people, some of whom might have to drive two hours to see a physician.

Nate Selin, executive director of Central Utah Public Health Department, acknowledged there could be other people in any of those six counties who have coronavirus symptoms that haven’t been documented but said that’s not for a lack of testing.

As of Tuesday morning, there had been about 150 coronavirus tests within the health district, Selin said, with more tests and their results pending.

"We don't have some of those same challenges you have along the Wasatch Front that you have with more densely populated communities,” Selin said in a phone interview.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Conquering Sand Mountain, motor enthusiasts ride Utah's Little Sahara in April 2009. The popular spot has been shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Selin said his six counties began social distancing at the same time as the rest of Utah, closing schools, halting church services and canceling community gatherings. Selin also worked with the Bureau of Land Management to shut down one of the region’s biggest visitor draws — Little Sahara Recreation Area in Juab County.

Little Sahara’s sand dunes attract thousands of off-road enthusiasts every spring and were still luring visitors in the first half of March. The BLM, in consultation with the local government, closed the area Thursday.

The other big attraction in the health department’s boundaries, Capitol Reef, remains open for hiking, though its campgrounds and visitor center are closed. It historically has been the least-visited of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks. Selin said the health department talked with businesses and town leaders around the park and persuaded them to close campgrounds and in-restaurant dining.

"It's limited the number of people there,” Selin said. “We still do have a number of tourists coming through, but based on the restrictions we have in place, people have done pretty good at not congregating in that area."

(Tribune file photo) Wayne County's main tourist attraction is Capitol Reef National Park. This barn inside the park, near the campground harks back to the area's agricultural past.

While other rural areas of Utah have reported coronavirus cases, there appear to be virtually no clusters like those seen in the state’s more-urban areas. State epidemiologist Angela Dunn said Monday that appears to be the trend nationally.

“We do know that there is some limitation to access to testing in our rural communities,” she said, “and we’re actively working with our health care system partners to establish mobile testing sites for these communities.”

Dunn on Tuesday said the lone positive test in central Utah is a man over age 60 who is recovering at home.

Selin said providing testing out of some kind of vehicle — which is already how a lot of rural health departments provide services like cancer screenings and immunizations — would get more people in central Utah tested for the coronavirus. But he noted that the hospitals in his six counties already have the capability to test. The hospitals also have erected tents — or plan to — or other temporary facilities to handle suspected COVID-19 patients if infections spike.

Sabala, who operates the Rim Rock Restaurant, the Rim Rock Patio and the Pioneer Kitchen, all in Torrey, said he saw a lot of tourists passing through town last week when people were on spring break. Since then, he said, traffic is mostly confined to locals.

When the pandemic first started, he heard some people in Torrey say the warnings and closings were hype.

“Now everyone is pretty well freaked out,” Sabala said, “and staying in their homes.”