National Parks, Moab Take Steps to Prevent Spread of COVID-19

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Both the Southeast Utah Health Department and the National Park Service have announced closures intended to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

To help prevent the spread of COVID-19 to Moab, Utah, and the surrounding communities, the Southeast Utah Health Department announced Tuesday that it was issuing a public health order significantly limiting access to all hotels, campsites and other overnight lodging facilities in the area. The iconic adventure hub is surrounded by public lands including Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and the La Sal Mountains. 

Effective 10pm MT on Tuesday, nonresidents could no longer check in at any overnight lodging facility—including campsites on public and private land; RV parks; motels and hotels—in Carbon, Emery and Grand counties. Guests with reservations are being asked to reschedule. Exceptions will be made for those living in the area or those traveling for less than 30 days for work. This includes employers as well as their spouses and dependents. Movie theaters also are being closed to the public. 

Citing a lack of resources to care for patients if COVID-19 were to spread to the area, staff at Moab Regional Hospital, the only hospital in Grand County, asked state leaders Monday for the suspension. The facility has only 17 beds and three ventilators and does not have an intensive care unit. 

The news of Moab’s attempt to limit visitation comes on the same day the National Park Service announced temporary park closures at some of its more than 400 park units, a move also meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The agency is closing some park facilities and suspending programs that can’t adhere to guidance from the CDC, the White House, and state and local authorities to practice social distancing. For example, popular parks like Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park closed visitor centers, but the NPS says park open spaces will remain open to the public whenever possible. At least one major park, California’s Muir Woods, has closed completely.

The park service did not initially respond to the Co-op Journal’s request to comment, and it is not immediately clear specifics behind why some facilities have closed and not others. With the NPS allowing each park superintendent to make closures and suspend operations at their discretion, the best way to find up-to-date information is to call the park or visit its web page. The NPS is asking visitors to follow CDC guidelines when visiting a park.

Then on Wednesday, the NPS announced that the agency will be waiving entrance fees for parks still operating.

“Our vast public lands that are overseen by the department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing, said David Bernhardt, secretary of the Interior, which oversees NPS.

The moves highlight the tension between people’s desire to get outside and center themselves in nature during this time and the pandemic’s potential to significantly impact the country’s healthcare system, especially in remote mountain towns and national park gateway cities like Moab, where health infrastructure is limited. People think they can engage in social distancing while exploring a national park, said Christy Calvin, marketing and community outreach director for Moab Regional Hospital, but they’re affecting the nearby town.

It is weird. All we hear is flattening the curve’ and ‘social distancing,’” Calvin said. “We look out the window and that is not what is happening.”

Even with calls from public health officials and government leaders to practice social distancing, Moab has been as busy as ever, she said. Despite cancelling two events last weekend that typically draw about 10,000 visitors, Calvin said the famed adventure hub felt as crowded as if the events had happened

“We’re doing everything we possibly can to flatten the curve,” she said, referencing the nationwide effort to slow the spread of the virus. “We can’t have that surge of patients. Our clinical staff will have to choose who lives and who dies, and that will be awful.” 

So far, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Carbon, Emery or Grand counties, Calvin said, but the hospital is taking steps to prepare.

“It feels like it’s marching toward us, and it’s only a matter of days before we have our first case,” she said.


Editor’s Note: All international and domestic REI trips, including those in Utah, are cancelled through June 21, 2020. REI will continue to keep all travelers scheduled past that date informed and updated as new information and guidance arises. For the latest on the co-op’s departures, visit REI.com/adventures and see the COVID-19 update.