While rest of Utah closes to tourism, anglers are streaming to Daggett County and some are worried

(Fran Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam, pictured here in a 2009 file photo, remains open to commercial guiding while many other rivers in Utah and Colorado have been closed to slow spread of the coronavirus. Dutch John-based fishing outfitters are booking trips down Daggett County's trout-filled segments of the river, raising concerns that their clients and guides could bring COVID-19 to the remote community.

The fishing has been great around the eastern Utah hamlet of Dutch John, maybe a little too great.

Most fishing and river destinations in Utah and Colorado are closed to commercial guiding and outfitting in the face of the coronavirus epidemic. Yet Daggett County still welcomes visitors while some Dutch John-based operators are booking outings in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and on the Green River with the arrival of the spring fishing season.

Some services, however, have suspended operations, including Matt Lucas of Western Rivers Flyfisher Guides, citing the impossibility of maintaining proper social distancing while interacting with clients who hail from all over the country.

“I can’t responsibly follow those guidelines in a 16-foot boat with three clients,” Lucas said. “You would have to row that boat from the stern and the other people in the bow to meet that order. They say you can guide, but take every precaution you can. For me, taking every precautioned is not taking clients on the river and inviting people to Daggett County.”

As with hotel operators and restaurateurs, Utah’s guides, who play a critical role connecting tourists with the state’s public lands, have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. At the requests of area health departments, federal land agencies have shut down national parks and rivers and suspended permits held by commercial guides and outfitters based in such towns as Moab, Springdale, Kanab and Vernal.

But that has yet to happen in Daggett County, in Utah’s northeast corner bordering Wyoming and Colorado, where water-based recreation is the lifeblood of the economy.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the Green River below the dam remain open to private boaters and the guides and outfitters who operate under permits issued by the U.S. Forest Service. Downstream stretches, though, have been closed by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, including the Yampa tributary through Dinosaur National Monument.

The Flaming Gorge Dam Visitor Center normally opens April 15, but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced it would remain closed in support of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s “stay safe, stay home” directive. The Ashley National Forest has closed some popular recreation spots on the reservoir’s shore, including State Line Cove, Linwood Bay and Swim Beach.

Staying afloat

Unlike many other local public health agencies, the TriCounty Health Department, covering Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties, has not sought restrictions on outdoor recreation. So while Grand, Summit and other neighboring counties have cautioned visitors to stay away, these three counties welcome them.

“We would like to keep the economy afloat as much as possible so when things return to normal, it’s easier for the transition. We have a great community. They understand what we are trying to do,” said TriCounty spokeswoman Liberty Best. “When it comes to recreation, we want people to be to able to enjoy the outdoors. If you want to go camping, go camping; just make sure it’s all members of the same household, and you maintain social distance from others.”

As with all businesses that operate during the epidemic, TriCounty expects outfitting services to adhere to strict protocols, including screening employees and patrons.

“Anyone exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19 is not allowed on the premises,” Best said. “We ask people to wear face coverings and implement social distance as best they can.”

Among the companies running fishing trips on the Green is Flaming Gorge Resort, Dutch John’s largest tourist operation, offering an array of services. Woody Bair, who supervises the resort’s outfitting, acknowledged he has been under pressure from some locals to cease offering trips, but he declined to discuss the matter in detail when contacted Thursday.

"We are just trying to keep our business going," he said.

Lucas said Ashley National Forest officials have been pressing guiding-permit holders to identify the steps they are taking to minimize the risk of disease transmissions while serving clients, but he wonders if it is time for the Forest Service to close the river and the reservoir — as federal and state agencies have done across Utah and neighboring states.

"It's hard to tell these people what to do," Lucas said. "You have to look at how it could affect this town and the residents and how many people who live here are at high risk."

Ashley spokesman Louis Haynes said Wednesday he needed to get clearance from Forest Service headquarters before he could speak to the news media about coronavirus issues. As of Thursday evening, the Forest Service had not responded.

While state officials have tried to discourage inviting outsiders into Utah during the pandemic, they don't want to see guiding services fold.

These businesses are a key pillar for Utah’s outdoor economy and serve an important role educating guests about how to recreate responsibly in Utah’s scenic areas, said Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation program manager Tara McKee. Not only are these businesses furloughing employees and canceling trips, they are having to refund clients’ deposits with money they might not have on hand.

“The deposits are used to get the guides through the winter and buy supplies,” McKee said. “That money is spent, and I’m sure some of those people want that money back.”

Delaying refunds

Lucas said many of his regular clients have told him to keep deposits, and they will reschedule a trip next year. His outfit, meanwhile, has changed its cancellation policy to refund deposits up until the day before the trip.

During the high season, Western Rivers Flyfisher Guides typically employs up to a dozen guides and eight shuttle drivers. Lucas has suspended all his operations, including shuttling those who float the Green in private boats.

Ferrying boaters from takeouts back to their vehicles requires packing several clients in a van for a drive lasting 45 minutes or more. Lucas believes the risk of transmission is too great to justify offering that service.

He is providing professional assistance to his furloughed employees to fill out the papers for receiving benefits under the federal coronavirus relief law, known as the CARES Act.

Utah’s smallest county with barely 1,000 residents, Daggett has yet to report a COVID-19 case. The nearest medical facility is an hour away in Vernal. The TriCounty Health Department reports 10 cases (six in Uintah and four in Duchesne) with one hospitalization.

“We don’t have a testing center. No one is getting tested. By the time you know, it’s too late,” Lucas said. “If we do get cases up here, it could affect more of our season. If we lose July, August and September, it would be extremely devastating.”

He said he understands Flaming Gorge Resort’s need to continue guiding since it has large overhead to support, while independent guides like Western Rivers run on a shoestring by comparison. The resort also provides amenities and services, such as lodging and lunches, that help him and the region’s other fishing guides better serve their clients during normal times.

“They are in a tougher situation than me. I don’t blame them for doing what they can to survive this [crisis] as a company, but I don’t know what the cost of this will be,” he said. “It’s a pretty big gamble.”