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Rural Health Officials Emphasize Importance Of Social Distancing As COVID-19 Park Restrictions End

Photo of Goosenecks State Park
Creative Commons / cm195902
Goosenecks State Park is located in southern San Juan County. The county lifted a ban on leisure travel on April 16, one day before Gov. Gary Herbert lifted restrictions on visiting state parks.

San Juan County relaxed its public health order restricting leisure travel on Thursday, one day before Gov. Gary Herbert announced Utahns can visit state parks outside of the county they live in. 

The order, put in place March 27, also banned gatherings of more than 10 people and was meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

But, at a health board meeting on Thursday, San Juan Public Health Director Kirk Benge said tourism no longer poses a threat to the county’s health care system. 

His assessment is based on a report released on April 6 by Dr. Lindsay Keegan at the University of Utah that found San Juan County would need around 15 hospital beds to treat COVID-19 patients if residents maintain the current level of social distancing. 

“Given that, I wanted to relax our local ordinance as much as we possibly can, with two key things,” Benge said at the meeting. 

He said large group gatherings remain a threat to the health care system, and that practicing social distancing is still very important. 

“Looking forward, if we can make sure any case is only infecting tens of people, this is something we will be able to handle,” he said. “But if we have an individual case that infects hundreds of other people and those hundreds of people infect tens, this will get out of control really, really quickly.”

Less than 24 hours after San Juan County lifted its tourism ban, Herbert announced that he’s reopening state parks to everyone. 

“We have a number of beds that are available,” he said at a press conference. “We have more, I think, than we need.” 

Herbert said some of the 43 state parks in Utah remain closed because of local health orders, but he is working to get those orders overturned. He said he’s also working to get national parks in Utah to reopen to state residents. 

Need To Build Herd Immunity 

Benge said he’s received pressure from local officials and business owners to lift restrictions on tourism and restaurant service in the county. 

But while COVID-19 has infected hundreds of people in urban areas of the state, most rural areas have confirmed relatively few cases of the disease — and that makes them more susceptible to a second wave of COVID-19. 

To fight this, Benge said it’s important for communities like San Juan County to build herd immunity, and the only way to do that is for some people to get sick. 

“The big misconception is that public health was trying to prevent people from ever getting sick,” Benge said. “Healthy people in all of our communities do need to be exposed to this disease, we just need to do it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm our health care system.” 

The director of Southeast Utah Public Health Department, Bradon Bradford, said he’s also under pressure to lift restrictions in Grand County, so Moab can get back to business.

Bradford said he’s looking at ways to do so while limiting risk, such as requiring servers at restaurants to wear masks and gloves and asking people not to visit Moab if they’re sick. 

“Right now it looks like we’ve done a very good job of isolating our communities in Southeast Utah,” Bradford said. “But until we can do antibody testing we won’t know what our exposure rate has been.” 

He added that his department is asking the National Park Service to open Arches and Canyonlands National Parks to locals before the parks open to tourists from around the state. He also said the Grand County Travel Council is planning to hold off on advertising Moab to international tourists for up to a year. 

Like Benge, Bradford emphasized the importance of practicing social distancing, even as restrictions on recreation and tourism end.

“I think people are a lot smarter about social distancing now, and using what we’ve learned will help protect everybody,” 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

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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