Gov. Herbert denies Bluff’s request to stay at high alert on coronavirus

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A school district employee changes the notification board at Bluff Elementary School to announce a two-week closure related to the coronavirus outbreak on Monday, March 16, 2020.

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Bluff • As coronavirus restrictions continue to be eased across Utah, tourists have begun returning to visit the canyon country in the southern part of the state, booking hotel rooms and sitting down in restaurants.

But for elected leaders in the town of Bluff, the state’s decision to allow most businesses to reopen last week came too soon for the 262-person community.

San Juan County, where Bluff is located, had 26 hospitalizations, four deaths and 254 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Friday, making it the hardest hit health district in Utah. The majority of the cases are located in the county’s southern half which overlaps with the Navajo Nation, and the Bluff Town Council has twice requested exemptions from the Utah Department of Health to remain in the highest level of coronavirus alert.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced a phased reopening plan in April with four, color-coded risk levels and corresponding restrictions. Bluff was initially allowed to stay at the “red” or high-risk level after the state moved to “orange” May 1. But with most of Utah entering “yellow” phase guidelines last week, a second request from Bluff to remain in “red” was denied.

The San Juan Public Health Department reviewed Bluff’s letter and requested Mexican Hat, an unincorporated community with a tourism-based economy near the Navajo Nation, also remain at a higher alert level.

“[Bluff’s] request prompted a review of data for our area looking at specific risk factors,” said Kirk Benge, director of the San Juan Public Health Department. “Based on that data review, it seemed clear that Bluff and Mexican Hat should not be treated separately. It didn't make logical sense to apply a separate risk level to Bluff, when they both have similar risks based on current data.”

Benge forwarded both requests to the state health department as is required in order for a local jurisdiction to deviate from the statewide order.

“After careful review and consultation with the governor’s office we disapprove the issuance of this request,” Jefferson Burton, acting executive director of the Utah Department of Health, wrote in a letter Wednesday. “Based on your population and concerns the Town of Bluff and Mexican Hat are, however, approved to remain in the orange phase of the governor’s plan until May 28th.”

Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen said in a May 6 letter to the health department that she was concerned with protecting workers in town, many of whom live in the Navajo Nation, and the town’s residents, “the majority of whom fall within the definition of ‘senior.’” She also noted there are limited emergency medical services available in the town.

“[The town council] voted unanimously to ask for an exception and remain in the ‘red’ risk, although I think the sentiment was that ‘orange’ would be acceptable,” Leppanen said in a meeting Tuesday. “The numbers have continued to go up.”

Steve Simpson, the owner of Twin Rocks Cafe and Trading Post in Bluff, said that although he and his employees have felt the economic impact, he has supported the town’s efforts to keep residents and visitors safe.

“I liked Bluff’s approach from the very beginning,” Simpson said. “I thought we needed to be cautious, and I think the town council was doing a really good job of that."

The cafe reopened Friday but without its usual indoor table service. Food is available for takeout at a walk-up Navajo taco bar, Simpson said, and additional seating has been added outside.

“We’re making a lot of changes that we hope will work and that will at least pay the bills," he said. "Now, I’m not convinced that’s going to happen, but we want to maintain some continuity, keep people working and hopefully get by.”

The Navajo Nation government has imposed the most restrictive measures in Utah with nightly and weekend curfews still being enforced for all residents. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez recently told The Salt Lake Tribune that he would like to see neighboring jurisdictions wait to reopen.

“The cities are opening up, and they’re not helping one bit,” Nez said. “We’re still having numbers that are going up, up. ... Why open up your government — why open up your businesses — when the cases of COVID-19 are still going up? That is what upsets me. We’re all in this together."

The Navajo Nation had a coronavirus death toll of 146 as of Wednesday.

Utah health officials announced the death of an elderly woman in Weber County on Friday, bringing the state’s death toll to 93.

As of Friday, there had been 660 hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Utah since the pandemic began, with 108 of those patients still receiving hospital care.

The state reported 183 new confirmed cases of the virus on Friday, bringing the total to 8,057 cases — an increase of 2.3% since Thursday. Of those, 4,748 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for three weeks following a diagnosis for COVID-19.

The state also reported new test results for 3,960 people between Wednesday and Thursday, with 4.6% of those testing positive. In total, 186,834 people have been tested since the beginning of the pandemic, with an overall positive rate of 4.3%.

Thousands of tests have been conducted in the 15,500-person San Juan County since April thanks to mobile testing events from the Utah Department of Health and Utah Navajo Health Services.

To honor the victims of the pandemic, Herbert ordered U.S. and Utah flags be flown at half-staff on Sunday.

The order matches a proclamation from President Donald Trump.

“We join with the entire country in paying our respects to those who have lost their lives in this deadly pandemic,” Herbert said in a statement. “As we fight this virus together, let us remember those who have passed, those who are struggling with the disease, and the healthcare heroes who make daily sacrifices to provide the best treatment to those who are suffering.”

The order lowers flags at all state facilities and public grounds from sunrise until sunset on Sunday. Individuals and businesses are encouraged to do likewise.

Reporters Nate Carlisle and Erin Alberty contributed to this article.

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.