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The Unemployment Gap: How COVID-19 Is Destabilizing Seasonal Economies In Southern Utah

Photo of the Bryce Canyon Inn.
Courtesy of Merrilee Mecham
Located in the 500-person town of Tropic, Bryce Canyon Inn & Pizza is one of many tourism-related businesses in Southern Utah that have seen massive cancellations as a result of COVID-19.

TROPIC, Utah — Like most residents of Garfield County, Dianna Leslie depends on tourism to survive.
At the beginning of March, like she’s done for over a decade, she stopped collecting unemployment benefits just as they were running out. Leslie, 44, returned to her seasonal job doing laundry at the Bryce Canyon Inn — a place where her bosses treat her like family and which she proudly describes as the “the best place to work” in the roughly 500-person town.

The rooms were booked through April, and the team was looking forward to one of the busiest springs on record, with visitors slated to come from all over the world to take in the iconic vistas and rock formations of nearby Bryce Canyon National Park. 

Two weeks later, coronavirus forced tens of thousands of cancellations across the region and Leslie, her family’s main breadwinner, found herself showing up for what would be her last day of work. 

“I walked in there feeling like it was the middle of January. You know, no one around,” she said. "It’s an eerie feeling”

Leslie is one of the close-to 1,000 seasonal employees caught up in what local officials are describing as an “economic crisis” ripping through Southern Utah: seasonal workers who typically exhaust their unemployment benefits during the winter who are now in need of extensions. 

That’s especially true in Garfield County, where nearly half of all jobs are tied directly to the tourism industry and unemployment swings a whopping 61% between the peak of summer and the dead of winter, according to data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

The area’s rural economy means people have limited options for work, said Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, who contrasted his region with northern Utah.

“The Wasatch Front is a different world,” he said. “There’s thousands of businesses. Down here, we just don’t have the population.”

Regional Fallout

Tourism plays an important role across the southern half of the state, where in three other counties — Grand, Kane and Wayne — leisure and hospitality services make up the biggest sector of the local economy.

That includes places like Moab, which moved aggressively to shut down tourism in response to calls from local healthcare providers.

Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus credits that decision with keeping the number of cases of COVID-19 in the area under control. So far, only one case of the virus has been reported in Grand County.

But the drastic course of action also came with a cost, she said, since it has meant that businesses are closed during what is normally their busiest time of the year.

“We’re looking at a month without revenue,” she said. “It’s pretty terrifying.” 

The tourism season in Southern Utah typically runs from spring through fall. The opposite is true in Summit County, where seasonal employment is tied to the ski season and peaks during the winter months. 
Relief Is Coming, But Timing is Unclear

The federal stimulus package passed in late March will give people who have already exhausted their unemployment benefits for the year an additional 13 weeks of support, said Brooke Porter Coles, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

But she said that the timing of the rollout is fluid and depends on guidance her department receives from the U.S. Department of Labor. 

“Implementation of these new programs will take time, but we are doing so as quickly as possible,” she said in a written statement.

Coles added that people who currently receive unemployment benefits should continue to file weekly claims. That also applies to people who have exhausted their annual unemployment allotments, which will be retroactively paid once funding from the stimulus package goes into effect, she said.

A Season Disrupted

That relief couldn’t come fast enough for people like Leslie, whose world has been upended by the pandemic and its fallout.

Her family has lived in this remote Southern Utah town for five generations, and she knows its rhythms well. From spring through fall, millions of tourists descend on the area and the community booms. In winter, businesses shut down, workers file for unemployment and locals cheer on the high school boys’ basketball team, which just won the state’s 1A championship.

But now, instead of spring, it’s like she’s stuck in an endless winter. The difference being there’s no basketball to watch or unemployment to draw on, she said, describing a recent call to the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

“They told me the wait time would be 59 minutes, which is doable. But then I waited for three hours. It was crazy,” she said. “I don’t remember any years that I’ve drawn that it’s been real hard to get on until now.”

Two chairs block off the entryway to a restaurant.
Credit Courtesy of Merrilee Mecham
COVID-19 wasn’t a major concern in Garfield County a few weeks ago, said Merrilee Mecham, a part-owner of the Bryce Canyon Inn & Pizza in Tropic. Her team had to create this make-shift barrier and call the sheriff after a couple of men walked into the then-closed dining room and pretended to cough on the tables and other surfaces.

Business Owners Brace For Uncertainty

For the owners of the Bryce Canyon Inn, the path forward is also uncertain. 

In early March, almost all of their roughly two dozen cabins were booked through April. But now, nearly all of those rooms will go empty.

A slew of cancellations meant that the business has had to refund over $20,000 of deposits over the last few weeks. And they still owe $10,000 more, said Merrilee Mecham, who started the outfit 15 years ago with her husband and other family members.

She added that she’s hoping her guests will accept vouchers for future seasons instead since they don’t have that much cash on hand. All told, the business, which typically grosses between $700,000 and $1 million a year, has lost $60,000 of revenue in April alone.

Mecham is trying to stay positive, but she’s worried about the business and concerned for the four employees, like Leslie, whom she’s had to let go. 

“I keep thinking I’m going to wake up from a bad dream. I have a big knot in the pit of my stomach,” she said. “I know everybody in the whole world is in the same boat. But it doesn’t lessen your fear.”

David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow David on Twitter @davidmfuchs

Correction 8:59 a.m. MDT 4/3/2020: A previous version of this story misspelled Merrilee Mecham's name. It has been updated with the correct spelling.

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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