Coronavirus cases spiking in Grand County as tourists return to Moab

Young adults who work in service jobs “take it home and pass it to family,” health official said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tourists on Main Street in Moab, on Friday, May 14, 2021. Coronavirus case rates in Grand County are among the worst in the nation, following a rise in tourism events, health officials say.

The rate of new coronavirus cases in Grand County is among the worst in the nation, following a rise in tourism events that have infected a large number of service workers and their families, health officials say.

For example, 12 cases were linked to the crowd in one bar on a single night during the Moab Easter Jeep Safari a little over a month ago, said Southeast Utah Health Department director Bradon Bradford — and that doesn’t count tourists who may have been infected, since those cases would have been counted by their home counties.

“It was really just a typical night at the bar, but with a whole lot more people than really we had been seeing in general because of spring break and Jeep Safari — a lot of people that were happy to be doing these things, and they were all together,” Bradford said.

As of Friday, Grand County’s coronavirus infection rate ranked in the top 4% of U.S. counties, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That analysis excludes about 200 counties whose populations are too small for the CDC to report case rates, but were rated as having “high” levels of transmission.

With more than 200 cases per 100,000 residents in the past week, Grand County is still far below the nation’s most-infected counties, which reported rates two and three times that.

It’s also a lower infection rate than many Utah counties experienced during the height of the pandemic, in fall and early winter.

But that was before vaccines were available. And with Grand County reporting one of the highest vaccination rates in the state — nearly 40% of residents over age 12 had been fully vaccinated as of Friday, the CDC reported — it appears the virus is aggressively finding new hosts among those who haven’t been fully protected.

Younger adults, for example, only became eligible in recent weeks, when tourist crowds poured into Moab — and when vaccine appointments were being claimed almost as soon as they were posted.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign recommending face coverings, on the door of The Spoke On Center, on Main Street in Moab, on Friday, May 14, 2021.

“We know a lot of disease was transmitted in some large, indoor situations, in bars and other situations where people are packed in fairly tightly. We’re seeing a lot of people ages 21 to 24 in the service industry; they take it home and pass it to family,” Bradford said.

On Friday, for example, health officials confirmed every person in a family of eight had tested positive, Bradford said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A nurse from TestUtah tests a motorist for COVID-19 in the parking lot of the South East Health Department, in Moab, on Friday, May 14, 2021.

At the Blu Pig, a barbecue joint on Main Street, two employees tested positive about a month ago, said owner and operator Jake Tanner. They both stayed home, and health officials reported no further infections, Tanner said.

But with tourism season ramping up at the same time as staffing shortages that have affected the service industry nationwide, it’s not easy to lose any employees for two weeks at a time.

“People are coming to Moab. They say, ‘It’s outdoors. We’ll be fine, we just need to get out of the house, let’s go to the desert!’ But when you come to the desert, you still gotta eat,” Tanner said. “We’ve been pretty tired with all these people showing up and having low staffing. But we’re making it.”