Robert Gehrke: Utah towns near national parks want tourists to visit, but hope they do so responsibly

(Photo courtesy Zion National Park) In this photo posted to the Zion National Park Facebook page on March 25, 2020, hikers stand and walk along a trail in the park. Rangers have encouraged visitors to practice social distancing to reduce coronavirus infections.

By the time you read this, Zion National Park will have reopened, welcoming visitors for the first time in a little more than a month.

It is the latest step in this tight-rope act health officials and elected leaders are taking toward reviving Utah’s tourism economy which had essentially been placed into a medically induced coma thanks to COVID-19.

Operations will be limited: Zion will only be open during the day, shuttles will not run, the visitors center will be closed, portions of popular trails will remain shut down and roads may close depending on congestion.

And congestion is likely, if what we witnessed when state parks opened recently is any indication. Several were overrun with visitors immediately.

Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef opened last week. On May 29, the final two of the state’s Mighty Five parks — Arches and Canyonlands — are scheduled to resume at least some level of operations.

Robert Gehrke

Stan Smith, the mayor of Springdale, right outside Zion, is ready for commerce to return to the tourist town.

“Springdale businesses have been hit really hard being shut down and there are bills that need to be paid,” he said. “The only way to do that is have people come and eat at our restaurants and shop in our stores and stay in our hotels.”

With 1,200 hotel rooms in the town vacant for the past month, Smith estimates the hotels have lost somewhere between $8 million and $10 million. Then there are the shops, the restaurants, and all the other businesses that supply them.

“There’s a concern about how long some of these businesses hold out,” he said. “A lot of them are ‘mom-and-pops’ and a lot of them have to borrow money to get through the winter, so they get out of the winter expecting to start paying it back and the well is dry.”

Vicki Varela, the director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said the National Parks Service has worked with state and local officials to tailor guidelines to the needs of each park and community.

“The whole industry is scrambling right now to figure out what the best practices are and how to institute them,” Varela said. “The devil is in the details and everyone is doing their part.”

Make no mistake: There is considerable risk involved in drawing tens of thousands of people to these natural playgrounds and we don’t have to look far for a worst-case scenario of what could happen if it’s done wrong.

Back in February, which feels like 20 years ago now, tourists brought the coronavirus with them to Summit County and the disease ripped through the county, creating not just the hottest hot spot in the state, but one of the worst per capita infection rates in the country.

Obviously there are differences between the national parks and ski resorts, not the least of which is that over the past three months we have all learned more about COVID-19 than we ever wanted to know.

Now we better understand the gravity of the threat. We also understand the value of social distancing, sanitizing and masks on a level we didn’t back then. But those measures only work if people rigorously adhere to them.

That’s the message Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus is preaching.

This is usually among the busiest tourist seasons in Moab, when thousands of visitors clog the street. But Moab joined Grand County and the local health department in calling for Arches and Canyonlands to be closed until May 29.

“We’re trying to restore visitor confidence … where visitors feel welcome and our community feels safe,” Niehaus said. “We in Moab need to feel safe. We need to feel safe that visitors coming are healthy, that they’re not feeling ill, because we don’t need that strain on our health care providers and we don’t want the virus to come to Moab.”

When you come to town, she said, bring your climbing harness, bring a kayak, bring your bike — but whatever you do, bring a mask. She knows people can socially distance and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. She just worries they won’t.

“There just seems to be this anti-facemask push, this anti-social distancing, this anti CDC-guidelines sentiment, that it is somehow tied to personal liberty, and that concerns me,” Niehaus said.

Personally, I’m going to give this some time. That’s partly because it took nature millions of years to carve the geologic formations in Canyonlands and Bryce — I can wait a couple months to see how this COVID experiment plays out.

It’s also because I’m not keen on being part of that experiment, rubbing elbows with crowds of people who may or may not be taking the risk seriously.

But please, if you do decide to go — whether it’s Bryce or Zion or Arches or anywhere in Utah, for that matter — you are a guest in those communities. That means being responsible and zealously adhering to the guidelines in place to safeguard these communities and their visitors.

That way, hopefully, we can resuscitate people’s livelihoods while protecting everyone’s lives.