As hard-hit San Juan County eases COVID-19 restrictions, Grand County extends camping closures

Some of the first places in the Western United States to see outbreaks of the coronavirus were rural tourist destinations. Summit County in Utah, Colorado’s Gunnison County and Blaine County, Idaho — all home to popular ski resorts — were among the hardest-hit areas in each of their respective states.

Looking at the trend in early March, elected officials and health departments in southeast Utah saw the vectors that brought COVID-19 to ski towns also exist in spring tourist destinations like Moab, which attract millions of visitors annually.

The Southeast Utah Health Department, which oversees Emery, Carbon and Grand counties, moved aggressively to limit tourism in mid-March, closing hotels and shutting down camping to nonresidents.

And on March 26, the department requested the National Park Service “consider implementing an indefinite closure” of Arches and Canyonlands national parks, two major tourist draws for the Moab area. The park service compiled several days later.

The measures appear to have been effective. Grand County was reporting only three cases of the virus as of Thursday with no hospitalizations or deaths.

San Juan County, located just south of Grand County and which also shut down camping to nonresidents in March, has not fared as well. It had the third highest coronavirus case rate in the state on Thursday, according the state’s database, with six hospitalizations and two deaths. The majority of the county’s 45 confirmed cases are located on the Navajo Nation, which has also been testing residents at a much higher rate than surrounding areas.

As Utah Gov. Gary Herbert implements loosened restrictions for the state on Friday, San Juan Public Health Director Kirk Benge said San Juan County will follow the state’s lead.

“San Juan County Board of Health voted [Thursday] to officially allow all local ordinances to expire and fall solely under the governor's orders,” Benge said.

Herbert’s order allows for in-restaurant dining, the reopening of businesses such as gyms and salons, and gatherings of up to 20 people, but it does not specifically address campgrounds or dispersed camping on public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Monticello Field Office is reopening permitted backpacking on Cedar Mesa on Friday, but its campgrounds and the San Juan River remain closed and will remain so even after Herbert’s order goes into effect. Dispersed camping in San Juan County is allowed, even to nonresidents, so long as campers comply with state guidelines, Benge said, and the county is no longer explicitly discouraging leisure travel.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, an early critic of state restrictions on businesses, announced on his Facebook page Monday that he would be attending a Utah Business Revival event in Vineyard on Saturday, where businesses are planning to set up booths on private land with, Lyman said, “plenty of hand sanitizer” available.

“It’s time for our economy to get back to work,” he said. “You know, I learned as a kid an important rule, and it was you don’t hurt people and you don’t take their stuff. That applies to government as much as it does to you and me.”

Grand County, despite having one of the lowest case counts in Utah, is moving more cautiously toward reopening than the state or San Juan County.

The Grand County Attorney’s Office said in a statement Thursday that the county is beginning “its phased reopening of lodging,” but camping will remain closed in order to control the amount of recreational tourism in the area. Camping on public lands in Grand County will continue to be allowed only for essential workers and county residents. The goal of the measures is to reduce impacts on the local hospital as well as medical and law enforcement teams, according to the statement.

“Together with our state and federal partners, we have closed BLM and [U.S. Forest Service] land to camping in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Grand County because we do not have sufficient medical or emergency personnel and facilities to safely treat both a severe COVID-19 outbreak and recreational injuries,” said Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan, who noted the search and rescue team for the county is the busiest in the state.

Sloan said the Grand County Sheriff’s Department has issued 60 written warnings and two drug-related citations since the camping ban went into effect, but for the most part enforcement has been verbal.

“Our technique, though, has been to park deputies at popular dispersed camping areas to turn people away,” she said.

Arches and Canyonlands will also remain closed beyond Friday.

The Navajo Nation, which includes southern San Juan County, still has the most restrictive measures in Utah with nightly and weekend curfews for all residents as well as a closure to tourists.

The Utah Department of Health and Utah Navajo Health System partnered to conduct a round of free testing in Montezuma Creek on Thursday and Friday, which will likely lead to a spike in confirmed cases for San Juan County next week.

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.