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'It's Not Business As Usual:' Southwest Utah Leaders React To ABC News Stories On COVID-19 Response

 The city of St. George, seen from above. A grid of rooftops, treetops stretch out towards red cliffs in the distance.
David Fuchs
The view of St. George in Washington County, which was reporting 38 cases of COVID-19 as of Monday.

ST. GEORGE — Local leaders are pushing back on recent ABC News reports that depicted life during the coronavirus pandemic as relatively unchanged for most Washington County residents.The coverage, which included a broadcast segment and web article, described bustling businesses, packed golf courses, cavalier elected officials — and a public for whom COVID-19 is “out of sight, out of mind.”

But these stories miss the mark, said Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox, who himself is immunocompromised. He said he is taking the virus risk extremely seriously.

He pointed to limits on group gatherings, new procedures at grocery stores and the recent closure of Zion National Park — a major move that was supported by multiple mayors, the Washington County Commission and Southwest Utah Public Health Department — that life is far from normal in this part of the state. 

“I think they were looking for a story and why they chose Washington City or Washington County, I’m not sure,” he said of ABC News’ coverage.

Cox is among a chorus of Washington County leaders who are speaking out against the framing of the ABC News stories. They object to the ways in which the national news outlet misquoted their comments or misrepresented their cities’ efforts to prevent the spread of the disease. 

And they insist that their responses are not only in-line with the governor’s directive and the guidance of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department but also appropriate, given the infection rate in the area. As of Monday, the five counties that fall under the Southwest Utah Public Health Department reported a total of 57 cases of COVID-19 — more than half of which are recovered — and only one death.

David Heaton, a spokesman for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, described the ABC News reports as “puzzling.”

“Life has markedly changed for our residents,” Heaton said in a statement, noting that many places where people traditionally gather in Washington County are now off-limits, such as national parks, city playgrounds, theaters, gyms and recreation centers.

Heaton acknowledged that the health department is taking a less-strict approach to implementing the governor’s orders and directives than districts in more urban parts of the state. But pointed out that many churches, schools and businesses in Southwest Utah have voluntarily closed.

“While many businesses and restaurants remain open and people are out taking care of errands, we feel most of them are taking responsible precautions,” he said.

Washington City Mayor Ken Neilson, whose city was the focus of the broadcast segment, said he insisted during his interview with ABC News reporter Kayna Whitworth that Washington City was following Gov. Gary’s Herbert’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive and acknowledged that residents could undertake further steps.

But following the release of the stories, he contends that his interview was edited to portray a different point.

“The article sounded like I agreed that nothing was being done,” Neilson said. “That was absolutely a false statement.”

St. George Mayor Jon Pike described the stories as “incomplete” and spoke out in favor of the localized nature of Utah’s response to the pandemic.

The Beehive state is currently one of nine in the country without a statewide stay-at-home order, relying instead on legally enforceable orders from local health districts rather than the governor’s office.

“We can’t really make a rule or a law or an order in Salt Lake City that really makes sense in Southwest Utah,” Pike said, referring to the more rural parts of the region, which he said differ greatly from the urban counties along the Wasatch Front.

He added that St. George has closed all of its municipal golf courses and all park features that bring people into contact with each other, such as playgrounds, gazebos, sports parks and basketball and pickleball courts. Grassy areas, however, remain open.

“It’s not business as usual in St. George or in Washington County,” he said. “This is not the time to come visit. This is the time to stay safe and stay home.”

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

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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