Gov. Herbert denies Grand County’s request to keep hotel restrictions as Arches and Canyonlands reopen

Updated 12:30 p.m., May 29, 2020: Crowds cause Arches National Park to shut gates just three hours after opening

With Arches and Canyonlands national parks set to begin a phased reopening this weekend, the Grand County Council held a special meeting Thursday where it voted to request certain coronavirus-related lodging restrictions be kept in place.

That request was denied hours later by the Utah Department of Health and the office of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, according to county officials.

Earlier in May, Grand County had been granted an exemption by the governor to remain at the state’s “orange,” or moderate-level, guidelines even after most of Utah moved to “yellow,” low-risk restrictions on May 16. Grand County’s exemption expired Friday.

Southeast Utah Health Department Director Brady Bradford reported to the council Thursday that the 10,000-person county, which includes the popular tourist destination of Moab, had confirmed nine cases of COVID-19 and had tested around 14% of its population.

“We don’t have a lot of rampant, unidentified community spread at the moment, even though we have seen an uptick in cases,” Bradford said.

As a precautionary measure, however, Bradford asked the council to support the health department’s request to keep some additional lodging restrictions in place before moving fully to the “yellow” phase guidelines.

Grand County Council Chairwoman Mary McGann said the department’s recommendations included two major differences from “yellow”: a requirement that overnight accommodations book at less than their full capacity and that rooms undergo a 24-hour rest period between uses.

“Women and men who clean the rooms told our health department they would feel much more comfortable if they could wait 24 hours before they had to clean the rooms,” McGann said, adding council voted 5-to-1 to support the health department’s recommendations Thursday morning.

The governor’s office "chose not to honor our request,” McGann said. “I always find it really interesting that the state that screams about federal overreach overreaches into Grand County constantly.”

Despite the pandemic-related travel restrictions devastating the spring tourist season in Grand County, McGann said she is concerned reopening too quickly could have negative effects on the fall season as well. “I’m concerned for the health of our citizens,” she said, “and I’m concerned for the economy, that this could have a boomerang effect and come back and hurt.

“I hope I'm wrong,” McGann added. “I really pray that it's safe to open and that our economy rebounds.”

During Thursday’s meeting, Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan pointed out that each weekend in May has been progressively busier with out-of-town visitors culminating in “a very busy Memorial Day weekend," and Bradford confirmed that it typically takes eight to fourteen days before any potential spread of the coronavirus is detected.

“The governor has touted local control,” Sloan told The Salt Lake Tribune in an email, “yet, he has refused to give Grand County enough time to evaluate the impact of our busy Memorial Day weekend or the opening of the parks on May 29. Meanwhile, Moab Regional Hospital today reported to the County Council that its ER was as busy last weekend as any prior Memorial Day weekend, and Grand County Search and Rescue reported eight serious rescue missions in the last week.”

Grand County, the city of Moab and the town of Castle Valley will hold a joint meeting Friday morning to discuss the reopening of Arches National Park. Sloan said the reopening plan could include a "timed entry system to help keep visitors, [National Park Service] staff and the Moab community safe from COVID-19.”

Last week, the governor’s office and the Utah Department of Health rejected a request from the town of Bluff to stay at “red” phase restrictions, instead moving the town to “orange” level guidelines. Bluff, Salt Lake City and Mexican Hat are expected to stay in “orange" for the time being.

Grand County, Magna and West Valley City, which had been “orange," will likely move to “yellow," according to Herbert’s office.

“There are three requests from local health departments under review by the Utah Department of Health to move the following jurisdictions from Moderate Risk (Orange) to Low Risk (Yellow): Grand County, Magna, and West Valley City,” the governor’s office said in a statement Thursday. “Based on the data and trends, we are inclined to accept those requests and an order could [be issued] as early as [Friday].”

The Utah Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the rejection of Grand County’s variance request. Sloan said Grand County requested “a modified ‘orange’ plan,” not a “yellow” plan.

“The Governor ultimately decides the risk level status of each city here in Utah,” West Valley City Manager Wayne T. Pyle told The Tribune in an emailed statement. “Regardless of its designation, West Valley City will continue to urge our residents to take all necessary precautions to stay healthy as we strive to protect and support our local economy.”

Magna Mayor Dan Peay did not respond to requests for comment.

Reporter Alex Vejar contributed to this story.

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.