Pressure builds from locals to close Utah’s Zion National Park even as tourists continue to go there

(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.

While visitor services and many popular Zion Canyon destinations are closed, southern Utah’s Zion National Park remained open Thursday despite pleas from two gateway towns to shut down the tourist spot, which has seen heavy spring traffic by out-of-staters.

In recent days, elected officials in Springdale and Rockville voted to send letters to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt urging him to close Zion, one of the nation’s most heavily visited national parks, especially in April.

“We feel the park’s closure is essential to limiting the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Utah. Out-of-state visitors continue to come through our communities on their way to Zion National Park, potentially bringing the virus with them, endangering park employees as well as area residents,” Rockville Mayor Pam Leach wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. “Our hope is that the National Park Service recognizes the serious nature of the virus and acts accordingly.”

As of Thursday, much of Zion remained open to the public, although park officials had suspended ranger programs, wilderness permits and the canyon shuttle. They also had closed the visitor centers, museums, campgrounds, restrooms and lodge, along with five popular hiking trails in Zion Canyon, including Angels Landing above Scout Lookout.

“While we are aware Zion has taken steps to minimize risk, by allowing the park to remain open, the risks still exist,” states the March 31 letter signed by Leach and the four other members of the Rockville Town Council.

These operational changes are part of a delicate balancing act in an effort to keep outdoor destinations available to the public, while complying with social-distancing measures outlined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to park service spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo.

The park service has yet to make a decision on a full closure for Zion, she said, noting that situations during the pandemic can change by the hour.

“We are trying to maintain some accessibility where we can and still maintain CDC guidance,” Lacayo said. “It’s not one-size-fits-all approach. Each park is a little different.”

‘Best we can’

Parks elsewhere in northern Arizona, such as Grand Canyon, and southern Utah, like Arches and Canyonlands, are now closed. These shutdowns could wind up pushing those for an outdoor getaway during the pandemic to Zion. And the park’s trail closures could concentrate use on the River Walk, West Rim trails and other trails that remain open.

“We recognize as you close one area, you might increase use in another,” Lacayo said. “Once we are through this, it will be easy to see where there are opportunities we could have done things differently or done well. We are making decisions as best we can using the best available science and recommendations from our partner agencies.”

The Interior Department has indicated that it will take cues from local health departments in deciding how to modify operations at specific parks.

In Zion’s case, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department has not recommended its closure. In a statement Wednesday, it suggested keeping the park open could be consistent with social distancing guidelines for minimizing spread of the coronavirus.

The department has implemented Utah’s public health directives for COVID-19, “which makes allowances for outdoor recreation in household groups or individuals who maintain social distancing from others,” the health department said in a statement posted Wednesday on its website. “ ... The decision to close national parks ultimately rests with the National Park Service.”

The Springdale Town Council meets Friday to finalize letters to the health department and Interior Department regarding its request to close Zion.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), which is calling for the closure of all parks, is concerned the park service could use the health department’s lack of urgency as an excuse to keep Zion open.

“We are in a loop where the Interior Department is looking for local health departments to request the closure of a park, but the local health department here says the decision is up to the National Park Service,” said Cory MacNulty of the association’s Southwest region office. “Are local hospitals [in Washington County] prepared for the potential for an outbreak. That’s uncertain, given the number of people coming through and the percentage from out of state.”

The messaging from the Southwest Utah Health Department stands in stark contrast with its Southeast Utah counterpart, which two weeks ago called for local park closures and banned camping by out-of-towners. That health department, covering the outdoor recreation hot spots around Moab, cited the limited health care capacity in Grand County to adequately care for an influx of people sickened by the coronavirus. To date, one Grand County resident, a woman between age 25 and 45, has tested positive; by contrast, the five southwest Utah counties report 30 infections.

‘Beyond reckless’

NPCA President Theresa Pierno described Interior’s failure to close Zion and its belated shutdown of Grand Canyon, coming Wednesday after several days of pressure from local authorities, as “beyond reckless.”

Bernhardt “is needlessly putting lives at risk by operating as if this is business as usual. He is giving people a false sense of security by inviting them to national parks, despite the risk,” she said. “The safety of park staff, visitors and communities should be the priority. Unfortunately, the administration’s actions are showing otherwise. We urge park visitors to make a plan to explore and enjoy our parks once it is safe to do so again, and not a moment sooner.”

She said social distancing is just not possible on some parks’ popular trails, citing one Grand Canyon ranger experiencing contact with 600 people in a single day.

The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a nonprofit led by retired park managers, is also pressuring the park service’s acting director, David Vela, to close all national park sites to the public.

“Undoubtedly the park system received hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of park visitors from untold locations in March during the accelerating spread of the virus across the United States. We have read that there have been at least seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 among NPS employees,” the group’s chairman, Phil Francis, wrote in a letter Thursday to Vela.

His letter asked Vela to issue daily reports on the number of cases among service employees by park.

“These are challenging times that require strong leadership and bold action,” wrote Francis, a retired superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. “If you truly believe that the safety of park visitors and employees is the service’s ‘number one priority’ (as stated in the Grand Canyon news release), then we plead with you to close the remaining parks NOW, so that our many friends and colleagues who still work for this wonderful agency are not unnecessarily compromised and exposed to this horrible virus as it spreads across the land.”

Grand Canyon’s closure came after several days of pressure from the local health department and members of Congress, including Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who heads the House Natural Resources Committee.

“The Trump administration refused to close a popular public gathering place until someone got sick, which is a perfect metaphor for how it’s handled this entire pandemic,” Grijalva said Thursday. “When local health officials start a letter by describing extreme concern, any competent authority would take notice and act immediately. Instead the Interior Department delayed for nearly a week while the governor [Republican Doug Ducey of Arizona] remained silent. Secretary Bernhardt can’t blame anyone else for his inability to make the obvious and necessary decision.”

Like Zion, Great Basin National Park in Nevada remains open, although most of its visitor services, including cave tours, are shut down. Dinosaur National Monument and Glen Canyon and Lake Mead national recreation areas likewise remain open with limited visitor services. On Thursday, Glen Canyon’s concessionaire, Aramark, announced it was shutting down boat rentals at Lake Powell’s Wahweap and Bullfrog marinas and its restaurant at Bullfrog, although the gift shop will remain open.