ST. GEORGE — Bryce Canyon National Park closed indefinitely to the public on Tuesday afternoon, National Park Service officials announced in a statement.
The closure follows Arches, Canyonlands and Zion national parks, which have all shut their gates to the public in recent weeks amid coronavirus concerns. The lock-downs have taken place when most of Southern Utah’s rural counties normally would be gearing up for increased tourist traffic, which fuels the local economy. But with widespread cancellations decimating the season and only one national park partially open, some local officials now say the region is facing an “economic crisis.”
For that reason, Bryce Canyon National Park had taken intermediary steps before electing for a full closure of the park. It had been working for weeks to implement guidelines put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” directive. But it recently became clear that further measures were needed, Linda Mazzu, superintendent of Bryce Canyon National Park, said in a statement.
“Continued visitation to Bryce Canyon made it hard to maintain the thresholds needed to ensure a safe visit, which is why this temporary closure is so important,” she said.
The closure is backed by local officials and follows the recommendation of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, which viewed the recent closures of the state’s other national parks as a cause for concern.
“Due to the increasing difficulty of ensuring adequate social distancing between visitors, especially after the closure of Zion and other attractions, our health district supported the closure of Bryce Canyon National Park,” health department spokesperson David Heaton said in a statement.
Although the local economy has already taken a big hit due to the drop-off in tourism, local officials and business leaders supported the park’s closures, said Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, who also approved of the decision.
“We can’t look at this from just one perspective,” he said. “We have to look at this holistically, at what’s good for our county, our people.”
Other areas of Garfield County — an area the size of Connecticut, which is roughly 96% public lands — have been closed to the public as well, Pollock added. Those include Calf Creek, a hiking area known for its waterfalls, and the Escalante Canyons.
The reason for the additional closures are twofold, Pollock said. The narrowness of the hiking trails makes it impossible to practice effective social distancing. It also requires volunteer first responders to conduct all rescues on foot or on horseback, which may not be possible while wearing personal protective equipment.
Narrow trails are also a concern in Capitol Reef National Park — the last national park in the state to remain partially open.
As of Tuesday, the park’s facilities, main campground and visitor services are closed. But backcountry areas, as well as the trailheads and parking areas off Highway 24, are still available for public use.
The park has tried to provide recreational opportunities for Utahns while ensuring that its staff, volunteers and visitors are protected from exposure to COVID-19, the park’s superintendent, Susan Fritzke, said. But the abundance of out-of-state license plates seen in the park was a cause for concern.
She added that a full shutdown of Capitol Reef is challenging because the roads running through it — Highway 24 and Burr Trail Road — are essential thoroughfares in the region.
However, the park may soon be changing its approach due to what Fritzke identified as a steady stream of visitors from states under “stay at-home orders” and the prevalence of different groups failing to maintain proper social distancing.
“We are in the process of now evaluating the possibilities of shutting down additional areas of the park to public access for the purposes of basically protecting ourselves, our counties and the people coming through this area,” she said.