Amid coronavirus threat, many Moab residents fear the worst as tourists fill Grand County for spring fun

With the nearly simultaneous arrivals in Utah of the spring travel season and the coronavirus pandemic, Moab residents, the state’s premier redrock destination, fear visitors could not only become sick and overwhelm the town’s tiny health care system, but also pass the virus to locals, many of whom work in direct contact with tourists.

These concerns prompted a declaration of emergency Monday by the Southeast Utah Health Department, instructing Moab restaurants to severely limit table service and discouraging large gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus in a part of Utah that had yet to report any COVID-19 cases.

While Summit and Salt Lake counties shut down bars and restaurants, the Southeast Utah Health Department has not gone nearly that far, but that could change quickly under the emergency order signed by director Bradon Bradford, who said Moab is filling up.

“Rooms that were canceled because events got canceled have been booked by people coming to visit," he said. "We’re looking at 80% occupancy over there.”

Meanwhile, schools have closed across the state, along with ski resorts, gyms, recreation centers, restaurants and almost all other leisure destinations. Not closed are state and national parks and other popular public lands sites that abound in Grand County, although Dead Horse Point State Park closed its visitor center Monday. (At least five other state parks around Utah have shut down their visitor centers as well.) This combination could invite a tidal wave of families who live within driving distance of southern Utah to places like Moab, a gateway to two of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks.

“We are concerned people will come and get sick,” Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus said. “You have to take care of yourself, then you can be of service to others. We are very worried about our capacity to serve others.”

The area hospital has 17 beds, often occupied this time of year by visitors who have injured themselves on vacation, and is equipped with two ventilators, essential devices that enable those whose lungs are ravaged by the contagion to keep breathing.

“Being a rural, remote community, we don’t have the capacity to deal with a pandemic and a bunch of broken arms,” Niehaus said. “What is Moab’s response to someone who wants to visit during these times? Is it, ‘Don’t come’ or ‘Come with a list of precautions'?”

For many Moab businesses, “Don’t come” could be a death sentence for their livelihoods, but other residents are outraged that tourists are still being encouraged to explore southern Utah during this rapidly escalating public health crisis.

“We are a very small town, with a very, very small hospital and two grocery stores,” said Moab carpenter Zac Karakouzian. “All of the people who come to this town might be spending all their time outside, but they are going to the same grocery store and using the same gas pumps and going out to eat at the restaurants that haven’t closed yet. If people in this town begin to get sick, their options are incredibly limited.”

Until later Monday, Utah’s national parks, which get increasingly crowded in March and April, had not signaled how they will conform their operations with that guidance, except to echo boilerplate from the National Park Service that parks will “remain open and maintain continuity of services” and practice strict hygiene.

Then, Dinosaur National Monument shut down its main indoor attractions. Zion National Park followed with announcement that it was suspending its shuttle bus service through Zion Canyon, while Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon unveiled new limits on visitor services. Those were the affected parks as of 8:30 p.m. Monday.

Coronavirus concerns may be keeping many people at home, but it appears others are hitting the road to enjoy Utah’s outdoors during pleasant spring weather and possibly escape to the wilds to get away from crowds.

Monday was another busy day at Arches National Park outside Moab, where a double line of cars stretched for at least a quarter-mile at the entrance. On the opposite side of southern Utah, Zion National Park’s visitor parking lot was full by 11 a.m.

“We have a lot of visitors calling to ask if we are open and we say yes,” said Elaine Gizler, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council. “We are not discouraging people from coming until we get that direction.”

At least a quarter of the 8,000 people who live in and around Moab work in hospitality trades, including Karakouzian and his girlfriend, waiting tables, cooking food, cleaning rooms, fixing bikes and guiding trips, according to Orion Rogers, the Southeast Utah Health Department’s environmental health officer.

"They are in direct contact with a transmission source, which is tourism," Rogers said. "By circumstance, they are required to be in these gathering situations and be exposed to an onslaught of vectors."

Despite these concerns, the department, which covers Grand, Emery and Carbon counties, did not ban restaurant table service but rather reached a compromise after meeting with 20 Moab restaurant operators, according to Rogers. Under a 14-day “order of restriction” issued Monday, eateries that offer counter service will switch to takeout only.

“All restaurants with table service will go to 50% capacity with special distancing measures, seating every other table and that sort of thing,” Rogers said. “They will promote to-go orders, some are developing online ordering systems.”

Establishments where people congregate, including theaters and bowling alleys, are to limit the number of customers to half their fire-code capacity, and arrange seating to maximize social distancing to at least 6 feet. Live music is banned at bars.

Rogers said he would prefer going further, noting that more complete restrictions remain a possibility, although one that would inflict great economic pain.

“In a rural community, we, as regulators, do not have the luxury of anonymity,” Rogers said. “We have to go on and work with these people in the future.”

The order will be reviewed daily and “may become more restrictive up to and including closure of all interior gathering places, based on the progression of the disease through our community.”

The overarching 30-day emergency declaration also recommends against holding gatherings that exceed 50 people, which could effectively doom some of Grand County’s most economically important events, such as the Easter Jeep Safari, scheduled April 4-12. In a divided vote, the County Council last week declined to impose a moratorium on such events.

As a bed-and-breakfast operator and former river guide, Karakouzian understands the concerns many in Moab’s business community have about shutting down visitor services.

“It’s silly when locals gripe about tourists coming because tourism is all we have. It’s not like a city where there are a whole lot of jobs. .... But I would be bummed if my 80-year-old neighbor died because people came down from the city to vacation. If everyone takes a two-week quarantine, we will take a massive hit, but it seems like the right thing to do,” Karakouzian said. “It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

Tribune reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this report.