Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

San Juan County Has Not Shut Down Hotels, But Owners Say They're Struggling

Photo of a sign welcoming people to the city of Bluff in Utah
Wikimedia Commons
Bluff is two hours south of Moab and one hour north of Monument Valley. The town of 300 relies largely on tourism, according to hotel owner Jen Davila.

BLUFF — Hotel owner Jen Davila normally staffs up in the spring, ahead of the busy tourist season. But this year nothing is normal. 

With the coronavirus spreading across the country, San Juan County’s northern and southern neighbors have essentially closed their borders to tourists. And while hotels in San Juan County remain open, they’re struggling to survive. 

This week, instead of hiring, Davila found herself laying off employees. 

“I feel awful about it,” she said. “Our staff, who are our family, are coming off the winter. They don’t have a big nest egg saved up.”

Davila said her 10-room La Posada Pintada is essentially empty — and she’s not alone. Hotels across the county have been reporting a spike in cancellations over the past two weeks, according to Natalie Randall, who heads up the county’s department of economic development. She says at least $500,000 in lost sales have been reported by businesses throughout the county, and over 500 hotel reservations have been canceled. 

“At least for this time of year, and what we’d normally be seeing in bookings, it’s a significant hit to our community,” she said. 

San Juan County is sandwiched between Grand County and the Navajo Nation, both of which have taken extreme measures to limit tourism in order to slow the spread of coronavirus. On Tuesday, the Southeast Utah Health Department banned hotels in Grand, Emery and Carbon counties from checking in new guests. The next day, Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez issued an executive order “banning” tourism to the reservation

Randall says there was a small bump in visitors after hotels shut down in Moab, but it didn’t offset the general trend of cancellations. 

“We are seeing some repercussions of visitors who were already in the area, but we’re not seeing a mass increase at this point,” she said. 

The department of economic development stopped running “Visit San Juan County” advertisements on March 13, following the closure of Monument Valley tribal park, Randall added. 

Davila, who is president of the Business Owners of Bluff, is worried that San Juan could be next. Despite concerns about the virus, she said she and other business owners in Bluff are in favor of keeping businesses open and have written letters to the county health department.

“Yes, we’re all worried about getting sick,” she said. “But more to the point: We’re worried about finding groceries and being able to pay for them.”

Things are even worse for Jared Berrett, who owns Bluff Dwellings. The resort had its grand opening on March 6, and has already lost “hundreds of thousands of dollars in trips and room nights,” according to Barret, who added he’s weighing whether to shut down voluntarily. 

“Either way we stand to hurt those we love — our employees,” he wrote in an email to KUER. “These are confusing times.” 

Kirk Benge, who directs the county health department, said he’s not planning to close hotels right now, although he’s received requests that he follow the Southeast Utah Health Department’s lead. 

“On the one hand, I see value in allowing people to stay in hotels, since they have isolated air handling, and to camp in RVs or tents,” he said. “On the other hand, I believe there is a very real concern about any influx of people that may further burden a soon-to-be strained health care system.” 

Benge said he’s monitoring the amount of tourism coming into the county, and he would consider closing hotels if tourism goes up. 

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.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.