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"We're A Border Town": Bluff Opts To Keep Restrictions As Businesses Throughout Utah Reopen

Picture of sign that says “La posada pintada,” with a small hotel and bluffs in the background.
Kate Groetzinger
Hotels in Bluff will reopen, despite the town’s request to remain in the high risk phase of the Governor’s reopening plan. ";s:

The Town of Bluff will remain under the red, high risk category in the Governor’s pandemic reopening plan. The state gave the town permission to continue implementing strict guidelines for businesses, as the rest of Utah moves from high to moderate risk. 

That means restaurants can still only do take-out, nonessential businesses must remain closed and no more than 10 people can gather in one place. 

Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen said she asked for the exemption because COVID-19 cases continue to rise in San Juan County and Bluff is in a uniquely vulnerable position. 

“Realistically, we’re a border town. Our workforce is from the Navajo Nation,” she said, adding that Bluff has “a fairly disproportionate amount of senior citizens.” 

Photo of a yard sign that says “proud gateway to Bears ears, Bluff, Utah"
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
There are 147 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in San Juan County, according to data from the Utah Department of Health, and only 3 confirmed cases are off the Navajo Nation.

San Juan public health director Kirk Benge said he supported the town’s choice to remain at the high risk level. Taken as a whole, San Juan County now has the second highest infection rate in the state, behind Summit County. But the majority of the cases are on the Navajo Nation, the hardest hit area in Utah.  There were 144 confirmed cases there as of May 10, according to the Utah Navajo Health System. Only 3 out of 147 cases in the county are off the reservation, according to data from the Utah Department of Health. 

Bluff’s exemption coincides with the expiration of a local ordinance requiring hotels to close. The town council repealed that ordinance on May 8, and also passed a resolution stating the town should remain at high risk. Gov. Gary Herbert’s letter granting the exemption came the next day. 

Leppanen said that most business owners were fine with the decision to continue implementing the stricter guidelines. 

“We’d been talking with the ‘Business Owners of Bluff’ and the sense I had was they wanted to open up,” she said. “But they also were concerned about the safety of their workers.” 

Hotels in Bluff can still reopen under the state’s high risk guidelines, but they must follow strict rules, including leaving rooms empty for 48 hours in between stays. Jen Davila owns a boutique hotel there called La Posada Pintada and is the president of the town’s business association. 

She said that the high risk guidelines are very similar to the moderate risk guidelines, which are in place for the rest of the state. 

“With the Governor’s guidelines most of us are still able to reopen,” she said, adding that trading posts and guiding services may have trouble under the high risk rules. “For guiding, it’s the proximity thing, and trading posts are technically nonessential.” 

Davila said she is planning to reopen on Monday and is expecting a shipment of personal protection equipment from the Governor’s office through a program meant to help small businesses. She added that while she’s received some new reservations, she doesn’t expect business to return to normal this spring. 

A map shows Utah color-coded by infection rate. San Juan County is dark red except for Blanding and Monticello.
Credit Utah Department of Health
The area surrounding Blanding and Monticello, San Juan County’s largest towns, has an infection rate of 50 cases per 100,000. The rest of the county, including the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, has a rate of 1,943 cases per 100,000 people.

While Bluff has chosen to remain in the high risk category, Blanding and Monticello have not. Essential businesses and hotels have remained open in San Juan County’s larger towns throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health director Kirk Benge said that while the confirmed case count is still low in both towns, the number of cases could be higher than the data show. 

“We’ve only seen a trickle of testing in Blanding and Monticello, and we know that many people from Montezuma Creek do their grocery shopping in Blanding,” he said. 

Benge said there will be a drive-through testing event in Blanding this Thursday and Friday that will be free to anyone who qualifies for testing under the current CDC guidelines. 

“I would like to understand better what’s happening in Blanding,” he said. “And I felt like the way to do that is to have an aggressive push.”

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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