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KUER’s Southeast Utah Bureau is based in San Juan County. The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area. Both initiatives focus on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

First Confirmed COVID-19 Case In San Juan County Prompts Camping Ban

Photo of a tent in the foreground at a developed campsite by a lake with campers in the background
Carolyn Dailey for KUER
Campers at Ken's Lake campground in northern San Juan County last week, two days after campgrounds and hotels closed in Moab.

San Juan County’s health department announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 Friday morning. Minutes later, the department issued an order to curb tourism in the county. 

The order lets local law enforcement kick people out of campgrounds, RV parks and hotels if they are visiting San Juan County for fun, according to Kirk Benge, director of public health. It also limits gathering in the county to less than 10 people. 

Benge said he timed the move so people would take it seriously. 

“Public health people recognized early on that we needed to take drastic measures,” he said. “But to the public and our government officials, it probably would have seemed like [an] extreme overreaction.” 

The order allows people who are passing through the county to check into an RV park, camp, or stay in a hotel. But Benge is asking tourists to avoid San Juan County right now if possible. 

“I think we’ll probably be issuing clarifying statements and clarifying our stance as this develops,” he added. 

The San Juan County public health department did ask people to limit travel to the county last week, three days after the Southeast Utah Health Department issued strict rules banning hotels in Grand, Carbon and Emery counties from checking in new tourists and closed all private campgrounds. But there was no way to enforce the ask until Friday. 

“We wanted to send a clear message that if you’re coming here to stay in a hotel to hike and bike and do other things that aren’t necessary, you aren’t welcome,” Benge said. 

San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws said sheriff’s deputies have started notifying tourists that they should make plans to leave, and can charge those who refuse to comply with a Class B misdemeanor. But campsites will not be closed off. County residents are encouraged to hike and camp locally, so long as they observe social distancing guidelines and make their camps at least 100 feet apart. 

“The plan is not to go out and write citations,” Laws said. “We want to educate first.”

Now that there’s a confirmed COVID-19 case in the county, Benge said it’s easier to make the case that visitors aren’t welcome, as they could strain the county’s medical system. But he added that the county probably should have acted earlier. 

“I firmly believe we’ll come out on the other side of this wishing we’d have done things differently,” he said.

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

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