Utah’s most popular park, Zion, finally closes after state intervenes

(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 had encouraged visitors to practice social distancing to reduce coronavirus infections, but, on Friday, Zion was closed after officials concluded such measures were not enough.

The National Park Service finally lowered the gates Friday on one of its most popular and crowded destinations when it shut down southern Utah’s Zion National Park in the wake of a formal plea from the leaders of the gateway towns of Springdale and Rockville.

The Springdale tourism economy will take a multimillion-dollar hit from the closure, but it is needed to protect residents, park employees and emergency personnel from the coronavirus pandemic, according to letters the Springdale Town Council delivered Friday to the U.S. Interior Department and the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, which had been resisting a steady stream of calls to close Zion.

“If we didn’t close and people died, would that be a greater loss than the economic loss?” asked Lisa Zumpft, a Springdale Town Council member. “The governor keeps telling us to stay home, so everybody else should stay home, too. None of us are happy that our businesses are going to be in a lot of pain.”

State Road 9, which serves as a vital connection between Kane County and St. George through the park’s southern reaches, and the Kolob Terrace Road remain open. But stopping is forbidden as is trail access into the park’s breathtaking backcountry during the finest time of year to enjoy it.

According to Zion Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh, the park service immediately closed the park after receiving a request from Joseph Miner, Utah’s top health official.

While visitor services and many popular Zion Canyon destinations had been closed for the past week, the park had remained open and busy. It had been visited by 9,000 people last weekend, according to the Springdale Town Council’s letters.

“Zion has been carefully assessing our ability to provide a safe environment amid this crisis and in making progressive changes to operations as needed," Bradybaugh said. "However, visitors are continuing to come to the park from all across the country at numbers difficult to maintain social distancing.”

Now, most of Utah’s park service destinations are closed. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon national parks remain open, but with almost no visitor services.

More than a year ago, Gov. Gary Herbert was pleading with the park service to keep Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks open during a prolonged federal government shutdown. But this week he advocated their closures to help stem the flow of visitors into Utah.

“Even with stay-home orders and directives in place across the nation," he said, “Zion still continues to receive a high number of visitors each day, which greatly increases the risk of infection to communities near the park."

At his daily briefing Friday, Herbert said state leaders also are working with Arizona officials to shut down the boat ramps at Lake Powell, also managed by the park service, hoping to have them closed by the weekend.

“The next two weeks are critical,” Herbert said.

Glen Canyon and its concessionaire had already shut down boat rentals, restaurants and camping areas on the lands surrounding Utah’s largest reservoir, usually a busy spring destination.

Herbert urged people to resist the temptation to gather in groups, even in the outdoors. If Wasatch Front residents have a vacation home or hotel reservations and are headed to southern Utah this weekend, he said, they should turn around and go home.

The National Parks Conservation Association was relieved that Zion was finally closed but remained critical of the park service’s refusal to shutter all its sites.

“We’re now concerned that closing Zion could divert more visitors to national parks that remain open in southern Utah,” said NPCA’s associate Southwest regional director, Cory MacNulty. “Slowly closing parks one by one risks making parks that remain open even busier and consequently more dangerous for park staff, local communities and the public.”

Driving Springdale leaders’ concerns was the recent upswing in coronavirus infections in the southwest Utah health district, now at 33, or a 30% jump over the past three days versus a 12% increase for the state as a whole.

“This is alarming and suggests the existing containment and mitigation strategies of 'Stay Home, Stay Safe” are insufficient to slow the transmission of the disease," they wrote in their letter to the local health department.

About 70% of Zion’s recent visitors this past week were from out of state, the letter said. “Undoubtedly, some of these visitors were infected with COVID-19, perhaps asymptomatically so, thereby vectoring the disease to the local community."

The town anticipates a $9.2 million loss in hotel revenue for March, April and May, not to mention the loss of business to the restaurants, shops and guides.

“As a result, we request the park stay poised and ready to open again without delay once it has been deemed safe to do so,” their letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said. “The balance between the health of the population and the health of the economy is extremely sensitive."

— Tribune reporter Jessica Miller contributed to this report.