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Bluff • As new coronavirus cases plateau in Utah and the state begins to reopen, some counties and municipalities have asked Gov. Gary Herbert to deviate from the statewide level of restrictions, requesting to be classified at higher or lower risk levels.

The 262-person town of Bluff in San Juan County, which has at least five confirmed cases of COVID-19, was granted an exemption Friday that will allow it to keep the highest level of coronavirus restrictions in place. Requests to reopen all businesses, on the other hand, were made by Washington, Kane and Iron counties, but those requests were denied earlier this month as the state stressed the need for extreme caution during this initial stage.

On May 1, Herbert changed the official risk level for the state from “red,” indicating a high risk of COVID-19 for all residents, to the “orange,” or moderate, risk level that allows certain businesses to reopen. Yellow-level restrictions allow all businesses to open with reasonable precautions.

Bluff to remain in red alert

Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen asked for the town to stay at the red alert level last week, a formal process that requires approval from the Governor’s Office and the Utah Department of Health. The request was granted on Friday evening, one day before San Juan County surpassed Summit County to become the health district with the highest per capita case rate of COVID-19 in Utah.

With the vast majority of San Juan County cases located on the Navajo Nation, which borders Bluff, Leppanen said she was concerned with protecting workers in town, many of whom live on the Navajo Nation, and high-risk residents, “the majority of whom fall within the definition of ‘senior.’ "

“It’s a matter of giving the community protection at the same time as we’re letting the businesses open up again,” Leppanen told The Salt Lake Tribune, adding that staying under the “red” risk category would allow the town to implement more protections for community members such as requiring masks be worn in public.

“We’re working closely with the Utah Department of Health and local health departments across the state to ensure that each community’s risk category correlates with what we know about localized outbreaks of COVID-19,” said Anna Lehnardt, a spokesperson for the governor. “The town of Bluff requested to stay in red status as local leaders work to address their own unique challenges. The state granted the town’s request.”

The San Juan Public Health Department, which imposed a camping ban and other restrictions in March and April, let those measures expire on May 1 to match Herbert’s statewide recommendations, a decision Leppanen didn’t fully support given the case rate in the county.

“This is just one of those surreal events for everybody,” she said. “You look at it and think, ‘I just want to do the right thing.’ And sometimes you don’t know what that is.” Bluff’s economy consists mostly of tourism-dependent hotels, restaurants and guiding services, which have remained largely closed since March. But Leppanen, who was elected as the town’s first mayor after residents voted to incorporate in 2017, said that easing restrictions isn’t going to bring back tour buses or otherwise undo the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

“You’re not going to bring [that revenue] back,” she said, “so I think we just need to protect as [many people] as we can.”

Although business owners in Bluff aren’t typically shy about airing disagreements with decisions made by the town council, Leppanen said for the most part the exemption request has been met with silence.

“We had maybe 30 people on the line when we were talking about it [at a virtual town meeting] on Thursday,” she said, “and so the fact that we didn’t get any negative feedback probably says it all.”

Under the “red” restrictions, hotels are allowed to operate using “extreme safety precautions,” including face coverings for staff and guests, additional cleaning protocols and a 48-hour rest period after guests check out of rooms when possible.

Restaurants are allowed to serve takeout, but nonessential businesses, such as trading posts, will remain closed.

Counties request to go 'yellow’

Tom Hudachko, a spokesman for the state health department, said there are other Utah exemptions that have been approved in addition to Bluff, including for the ski town of Alta, which has an exemption to disallow lodging. Summit County likewise has a number of restrictions that go beyond the statewide order.

Nephi City and the Bear River Health Department, which oversees Cache, Rich and Box Elder counties in northern Utah, have a pending request to move in the opposite direction, Hudachko said, by being downgraded to the less restrictive yellow alert classification.

“Washington, Iron and Kane counties requested to go ‘yellow’ [in late April] and that request was denied,” he said.

The current, “orange” risk level allows for the reopening of in-restaurant dining with extra spacing required between customers.

Iron County Commissioner Paul Cozzens, who has advocated for local control of coronavirus restrictions, said one small restaurant in his county typically has nine tables, but it has been limited to two tables under the current order.

“They can’t make it,” he said. “Our businesses need to get back to work. I’m sure the government is going to demand that these businesses continue to pay their taxes when they’re forcing them to close or forcing them to restrict their operations to the point where they can’t make a living.

“I would like to see any bureaucrat like [Lt. Gov.] Spencer Cox or [Gov.] Gary Herbert — if they demand these businesses remain closed — I would like to see them forgo their cushy, government paycheck," Cozzens continued, “which is derived from the very businesses they’re [restricting].”

Cozzens said coronavirus cases will likely increase as restrictions are eased, but limiting businesses shouldn’t be the state’s decision.

“If somebody is at risk, they need to quarantine and protect themselves,” he said. “This is really about personal responsibility."

State health officials have warned that reopening too quickly could reverse the trends indicating the pandemic is finally subsiding in Utah, however.

“It is extremely important for the entire state of Utah to be cautious during this initial re-opening phase, especially for tourism-based economies such as yours,” Jefferson Burton, acting executive director of the Utah Department of Health, wrote in a May 1 letter denying Washington County’s request to move to the yellow alert level.

San Juan County testing

Kirk Benge, director of San Juan Public Health, said his department acted as an intermediary to forward Bluff’s exemption request to the state health department. Benge said he deemed the town’s request legitimate given the situation in southern San Juan County, but he added that the county as a whole will likely remain under the orange, moderate-risk guidelines despite the rising number of confirmed cases in southeast Utah.

“We've done a lot of outreach testing which has revealed cases that I believe for the most part are a continuation of what we've seen happening on the Navajo Nation,” Benge said. “None of these results have particularly taken me by surprise.”

The recent surge in confirmed cases came after the Utah Navajo Health System and Utah Department of Health administered thousands of free tests on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County in late April and early May. State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said last week that the increase in positive test results in the county, which has a population of 15,500, represented a “true spike in cases” and were not due solely to increased testing.

But Benge said health officials have been conducting interviews with people who have tested positive, which have mostly revealed household, not community, spread.

“A lot of the recent cases that we are seeing had known contact with cases back in early April,” Benge said. If cases start to pop up in individuals who had no known contact with another positive case, he explained, it would be a larger cause for concern and could signal a need to reinstate greater restrictions.

On Thursday and Friday, free mobile testing will be available at Blue Mountain Hospital in Blanding, the county’s largest town, which has seen far less testing than the Navajo Nation. Benge said the testing event should provide better information about the spread of the coronavirus in the central part of the county.

“There are cases in the community that we aren’t aware of yet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” he said. “We’re pushing testing to try to reveal those cases so that we can do contact tracing so we can paint a better picture of the current situation to help inform a decision of whether we’re on a good track or not.”

San Juan County was reporting 15 coronavirus-related hospitalizations, three deaths and 152 confirmed cases as of Tuesday. The Southwest Utah Health Department in Washington, Kane, Garfield, Iron and Beaver counties, which together have a population that’s over 15 times larger than San Juan County, was reporting 167 cases, 13 hospitalizations and three deaths.

Herbert is scheduled to reevaluate statewide risk levels on Friday.

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.