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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Arches And Canyonlands Are Reopening This Weekend, As Moab Shifts To Low-Risk For Coronavirus

Photo of a crowded sidewalk
Kate Groetzinger
Hotels and campgrounds in Grand County reopened at the beginning of May. Since then the number of COVID-19 cases in the county has gone from three to nine.

MOAB — As Arches and Canyonlands national parks prepare to reopen this weekend, Gov. Gary Herbert has rejected a request from Grand County officials to limit overnight lodging. 

And with the county shifting from the “orange” moderate-risk phase, to the “yellow” low risk phase, locals are divided over how to handle the potential surge of visitors. Some are calling for stricter rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while others are ready to get back to business. 

Visitors largely ignored safety precautions over the Memorial Day weekend, according to local business owners and officials, and the town was busy, with traffic down just 20% from the same time period in 2019. Hotels and campgrounds were at or near 50% capacity, the maximum allowed under a temporary law that expires Friday night. 

Moab bookstore owner Andy Nettell said he was disturbed by the crowds of people he saw over Memorial Day weekend, despite the fact that he’s hurting for business. 

“It was just heartbreaking to watch the hordes down here,” Nettell said. “There needed to be more social distancing, and masks required, and all of these precautions that are not that difficult but simply did not happen.” 

While plenty of residents share Nettell’s opinion, many business owners found the crowds on Main Street a welcome sight. Ray Aigne, who owns a towing business, says Moab has been closed for too long. 

“In the working class there is a tremendous amount of want and will to open the town back up,” he said. “Any tourism-based operation in town is wanting the town to open.”

Local officials are also divided over whether it's safe to reopen Moab without tighter restrictions. Some say their hands are tied when it comes to controlling tourists eager to come play in Moab, as they must get permission from Herbert to deviate from the phased reopening guidelines handed down by the state. However, others say the local government has mostly gotten its way.

Photo of a line of ATVs on a street
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
Thousands of people from all over the state showed up in Moab to do ATV tours in Moab on Memorial Day weekend.

Mary McGann, who chairs the Grand County Council, said she would have liked to require all visitors and residents to wear masks. The Southeast Utah Health Department submitted that request to Herbert in April, but he rejected it. 

“It is being driven by the state at this point,” she said of Moab’s reopening. “If the state wasn’t in control, I think we might have moved a little slower.” 

But Grand County Councilmember Curtis Wells disagreed, pointing to the fact that Herbert made exemptions for Grand County in May as proof that local desires have helped guide Moab’s reopening. 

Herbert allowed the county to stay in the orange, moderate-risk phase of the state’s reopening plan through Memorial Day at the request of the local health department, and he allowed it to limit private campgrounds and large hotels in Grand County to 50% capacity. 

“I think this idea that the state’s not given local government the opportunity to have a voice isn’t true,” Wells said. “There’ve been compromises in our phased reopening.” 

Those who support re-opening Moab point to the fact that Grand County has been largely spared from the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of May, when a public health order restricting all tourism there expired, Grand County had just three confirmed cases of the disease. Now that number is nine, with five cases confirmed in the past two weeks. 

Bradon Bradford, director of the Southeast Utah Health Department, said that makes him nervous, as Moab welcomed tens of thousands of tourists last weekend and will likely do so again this weekend. 

“We’re counting on people to maintain those practices that we know help,” he said. “The masks and the social distancing, though, that didn’t seem to be the case for many of the tourists in town last week.”

Limiting lodging capacity was one of the only tools Grand County had to control the number of people in town, but that’s no longer the case, since Herbert immediately rejected a request from the Southeast Utah Health Department and Grand County on Thursday to keep some limits in place. 

And while Bradford signed the request for the exemptions, he said under the state’s criteria it makes sense for Grand County to move to the “yellow,” low-risk phase.

“Looking at the hospital data and transmission and cases, frankly that indicated that Grand is in the yellow phase,” Bradford said. 

But Nettell, the bookstore owner, has decided to set his own rules for reopening. He said he initially wanted to reopen on June 1, but after seeing the way tourists behaved over Memorial Day weekend, he pushed that date back to June 15.

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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