It's been more than a month since Red Rocky Bakery owner Howard Trenholm closed his business in Moab because he wasn't making enough money. But now that tourists will be allowed to visit again, he's getting ready to reopen — reluctantly.
Trenholm said he’s afraid that if Moab opens too quickly, businesses like his will have to shut down again, leaving him with a freezer full of ingredients and more debt than he’s already taken on to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I want to be open, and I’m eager,” he said. “But I’m not fully convinced we’re really safe.”
But state officials say it’s time to reopen the economy. They will allow restaurants to reopen their dining rooms and lift the “stay safe, stay home” restriction on non-essential travel, as well as other social and business restrictions, on May 1. The Southeast Utah Health Department — which oversees public health in Grand, Carbon, and Emery counties — will follow suit, allowing a ban on tourism in Grand County to expire on May 1.
The local decision to lift travel restriction and the state’s move to allow restaurants and other businesses to reopen have some in Grand County worried that Moab could be hit with a second, and possibly worse, wave of COVID-19. But public health officials are implementing strict guidelines for businesses to limit the spread of the virus, and they say the local hospital will be able to handle a small outbreak.
“We do expect to see an increase in cases in our area, as visitors come,” said Orion Rogers, head of the regional COVID-19 task force and an employee of the Southeast Utah Health Department. “However, we recognize that we’re far more prepared to take care of the additional workload.”
Local health officials cited the low transmission rate of COVID-19 in the region and the fact that there have only been two confirmed cases in Grand County as reasons it’s safe to reopen Moab to tourists.
To date, the 17-bed Moab Regional Hospital has not admitted any patients for the virus, a hospital spokesperson said, while testing capacity has increased. But the hospital has only tested around 400 people for COVID-19 since it started testing people for the virus. That’s less than 3% of the population in Grand County.
“Right now, we don’t have a mobile testing site like they do on the Wasatch Front. We don’t have access to some of those resources,” said Bradon Bradford, director of the Southeast Utah Health Department.
Despite the limited testing, the health department says it couldn’t keep businesses and hotels closed — even if it wanted to — because of a new state law passed by the Legislature in March. The law requires local health departments get an exemption from the governor to pass orders that are more restrictive than those implemented by the state.
A legal review by the Southeast Utah Health Department found officials may not keep restrictions on tourism and businesses in place, Bradford said. But Gov. Gary Herbert said in a press conference Tuesday that local health departments can request permission to implement health ordinances that are more restrictive than the rules set by the state.
“Local control, avoiding a one-size-fits-all mentality, regional differences, those are things in play here,” he said.
For now, the Southeast Utah Health Department will require businesses to follow strict sanitation and social distancing protocols when they reopen. The department released those rules in draft form yesterday. They contain a ban on non-commercial camping, as well as limitations on how many rooms hotels can rent out. The department’s board will meet to pass the rules as an enforceable ordinance later this week, according to Bradford.
But some local officials worry repealing the tourism ban could lead to an outbreak of COVID-19 in Moab. Grand County councilwoman Mary McGann said she’s concerned the health department may need permission from the state to reissue a tourism ban if COVID-19 starts to spread.
“This is our ski season, and if we turn into an Aspen or Sun Valley or Vail, we’re going to be in trouble,” she said, referring to COVID-19 outbreaks in those ski towns. “Because we can’t just pull the plug and say ‘Go home’ if we see a spike.”