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Moab Business Owners Push Back Against County-wide Event Ban

Photo of runners crossing a finish line with the sign Canyonlands Half Marathon against a red rock background.
Ken Lund / CC via Flickr
The Canyonlands Half Marathon draws over a thousand people to Moab each March, according to race director Justin Ricks. He cancelled the 2020 race in anticipation of a countywide event ban.

Updated 2:21 p.m. MDT 3/12/2020: Governor Gary Herbert announced Thursday afternoon that the state recommends limiting mass gatherings, defined as events with over 100 people in one room or building. That recommendation is in effect beginning Monday, March 16, and continuing for at least two weeks.

The Grand County Council met in Moab Wednesday to consider banning large public gatherings because of coronavirus. But the measure failed after local business owners and managers testified against it. 

The emergency meeting lasted almost three hours and drew a crowd that spilled out of the council chamber and down the hall. Among them were scores of angry business owners who said an event ban would send Moab’s economy into a tailspin.

“You want to put a sign on the bridge [that says] ‘Go away’,” said Dan Mick, who owns a Jeep tour company and spoke during the public comment period. “That’s ridiculous. You’re hurting people’s incomes. You’re hurting people’s livelihoods.” 

The measure was developed by the Grand County COVID-19 Community Task Force, which includes healthcare experts, law enforcement and local officials. It would have capped indoor events at 100 people and outdoor events at 250 people. The ban would have applied to events throughout the county, including within the City of Moab. The measure also included specific guidelines for smaller events, which would have applied only to those occurring in unincorporated parts of Grand County.

Local public health officials say a large event ban is one of the best tools for slowing the rate of coronavirus infection. 

“Understand that we do expect to see coronavirus in this community at some point, and we do think that an influx of people will hasten that,” said Brady Bradford, director of Southeast Utah Health Department, which covers Grand, Carbon and Emery counties. 

Bradford is part of the community task force and helped develop the measure. Representatives from the Moab Regional Hospital are also on the task force. They said that the hospital is not equipped to handle a large outbreak, in part because it cannot keep people on ventilators.

“We fly all of our ventilated patients to another hospital,” said Christy Calvin, a spokesperson for the hospital. “And so that’s the problem with this disease, is that people need to go on ventilators when they get really critical.” 

Despite the fact that the large event ban failed, a handful of upcoming Moab-based events have already been cancelled. Those include the Canyonlands Half Marathon, Behind the Rocks Ultra and Skinny Tire Festival. 

Justin Ricks owns Mad Moose Events which hosts the half marathon and ultra each March. He said he cancelled both events prior to the emergency meeting on Wednesday because of uncertainty about the ban and pressure from Grand County staff. 

“I was screwed no matter what,” he said, citing concerns that he could somehow be held liable by the county for a coronavirus outbreak. “They left me with nothing else but to cancel.” 

Easter Jeep Safari, another big event that brings thousands of people to Moab, will still occur at the beginning of April. Organizers said they won’t cancel the driving portion of the event, since it doesn’t include much social contact. But event planner Rex Holman said they have cancelled a vendor expo out of concern that Grand County will still pass an event ban. 

“We have a strong suspicion, knowing our local politicians, they will in all probability find a way to pass it,” he said. 

Correction 2:21 p.m. MDT 3/12/2020: A previous version of this story misstated the area that would be included in the ban. The ban would apply to all areas of Grand County.

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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