‘We’re all going to be hurting’: Towns Near National Parks Feel the Impacts of COVID-19

As parks close and businesses temporarily shutter, communities bordering parks are already experiencing the financial impacts of the virus.

Editor’s note: After a great deal of careful consideration, we temporarily closed our retail stores nationwide. For more information, review the FAQs regarding REI’s recent store closures. Please consult the CDC or your state health department for advice related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including information on symptoms, testing and how to protect yourself and others during social distancing. Follow local guidelines regarding travel, and check access to local, state and national parks before you visit. Remember that outdoor recreation has inherent risks; don’t attempt activities beyond your experience and skill level. Your actions may present risk not only to you, but the local community during these challenging times.

Tiana Byrd, 42, moved from Colorado to Moab, Utah, nearly a year ago for a change of scenery. The self-described outdoor enthusiast yearned to live close to the remote desert town’s vermilion trails, particularly those in the neighboring national parks, including Arches and Canyonlands. Her son liked to ride his mountain bike on nearby dirt paths.

She took a job as the chef of the Moab Grill, a local steakhouse that’s been a town fixture for more than 40 years. Within five months, she swapped kitchen duty for managing about 20 of the restaurant’s employees. Less than a year later, she’s both a cook and manager—now as the only employee remaining after the restaurant owners laid off its entire staff in March.

Like many businesses across the country, the Moab Grill laid off workers in an effort to stay financially afloat after many state and local leaders mandated that nonessential businesses temporarily close. The measure is an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has sickened more than a million people globally and killed more than 25,000 people in the U.S., according to The New York Times. The economy has also taken a historical hit. As businesses big and small struggle amid closures and reduced consumer demand, millions of Americans have lost their jobs. In the week ending April 4, a record 6.6 million U.S. workers filed initial claims of unemployment benefits.

Though the pandemic has affected nearly every community in the U.S., some rural towns like Moab face unique challenges due to their remoteness, dependence on tourism-generated revenue from national parks and limited hospital infrastructure. In 2018, more than 300 million people visited national parks and spent more than $20 billion in cities and towns located outside or adjacent to the parks, according to the National Park Service. In Utah, 1.7 million people visited Arches National Park and spent about $200 million in nearby towns like Moab. This includes money spent at hotels, grocery stores, campsites and restaurants, among other places.

A decrease in park visitation is a big hit for rural towns that depend on this tourism for revenue. In the 2018–19 fiscal year, about half of Moab’s revenue came from tourism-generated taxes. Among many things, the city uses this money to pay its workers, including law enforcement officers. Because the COVID-19 pandemic has decreased people’s appetite for travel, towns like Moab could continue to struggle even after its storefronts and parks reopen.

“I can’t imagine that our country is going to bounce into vacation mode,” Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus said. “I can’t imagine people are going to be flocking to Moab in the same numbers that they were last year.”

Niehaus said the $2 trillion federal relief bill, known as the CARES Act, may ease the stress of the next few months of closures. But if businesses remain closed, she said, it won’t matter if a town has a tourism-based economy. “We’re all going to be hurting,” she said.

For now, the priority is to keep the town healthy, so business owners can reopen when it’s time. Stemming the spread of COVID-19 is especially important for rural towns with smaller hospitals. For instance, Moab Regional Hospital, the only hospital in Grand County where Moab sits, has only 17 beds and three ventilators and does not have an intensive care unit.

“Rural, remote areas are often last in line for resources. That’s why it’s particularly frightening for us in Moab,” Niehaus said. On March 26, Niehaus asked the superintendent for the Southeast Utah Group of the National Park Service to close Arches and Canyonlands national parks, hoping it would prevent people potentially infected with COVID-19 from visiting Moab and spreading the virus. On March 28, the National Park Service closed the two parks and their trails entirely to visitors in response to state and local health officials. (State and federal land managers across the country are also temporarily closing facilities, suspending services and restricting access to certain trails.)

The Moab Grill closed in mid-March after local leaders mandated that nonessential businesses temporarily shutter, though the owners plan to reopen after the order is lifted. Restaurants can now only fill takeout orders. Since losing business, the steakhouse owners have laid off all employees but Byrd, who now cooks, packages and delivers food to the few customers still ordering.

This time last year, the restaurant served nearly 200 people a day, Byrd said. Moab is typically busiest March through May, when students are on spring break and recreationists take advantage of the still-temperate desert weather. With the closures this year, the restaurant was lucky to serve 13 dinners on a Saturday at the end of March.

“It’s been drastic,” Byrd said of the changes. “We’re getting by on a couple hundred dollars in sales if we’re lucky.”

Other national park gateway towns face similar stressors. Gatlinburg, Tennessee, typically swells with visitors this time of year. Up to 15 million people visit Sevier County, where Gatlinburg sits, annually.

“Essentially, our economy is driven solely by tourism,” said Mark Adams, CEO and president of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, in an email to the Co-op Journal.

Travelers to Tennessee collectively spent an estimated $60 million a day in 2018, according to the U.S. Travel Association. The quaint mountain town of some 4,000 residents is popular among outdoor recreationists visiting the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park, with more than 12.5 million visits in 2019. Shirley Price, owner of Gatlinburg’s Foxtrot Bed and Breakfast, said that since the mandated closures, the town has become quiet.

Price said she worries about getting sick, but she is equally concerned about the financial impact of temporarily closing the bed and breakfast she owns with her husband. The couple opened the establishment 15 years ago to invest in a large property with views of the Smokies. Price, a professional chef, cooks for the guests, preparing things like baked-apple appetizers and dinners of shirred eggs Florentine. Together, she and her husband maintain the property, located less than three miles from one of the main entrances to the national park.

Since Tennessee mandated that businesses like Price’s close to help prevent the spread of the virus, Price has lost much of her monthly income. Her four-bedroom bed and breakfast typically generates between $16,000 and $20,000 in March, she says. This year, Price had to cancel every March reservation due to state mandates and visitors’ own decisions to postpone travel. More cancellations have continued to trickle in through April and May as people prepare to stay home.

“I just don’t know what the end game is going to be right now,” Price said of her business. “We are planning to continue and pray that we can continue on with what we were doing.”

In Estes Park, Colorado, a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, Doc Young, 71, owner of Fly Fishing the Rocky Mountains, has suspended his guided fly-fishing trips. Unlike Price, Young isn’t worried about the financial impact the closure will have on his business. He’s been able to reschedule his trips for later in the year and has continued to pay his one employee. But he is concerned about other businesses in Estes Park, which depend on tourism from the nearby national park.

“I don’t think anybody was prepared for this. A lot of people didn’t save their money,” he said. “They have nowhere to go.”

Estes Park Town Administrator Travis Machalek said tourism dollars comprise about 60 percent of the town’s revenue. Many of its businesses are locally owned, with few chain restaurants or big-box stores nearby. In 2018, 4.6 million visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park spent about $306 million in local gateway communities, according to the National Park Service. This spending supported more than 4,000 jobs.

“Like many other gateway communities, we rely very heavily on the visitor population to the national parks,” he said.

Still, leaders like Machalek and Niehaus have faith that rural towns will rebound. They may be more vulnerable to economic ups and downs, but Niehaus believes residents are resilient.

“It kind of takes a certain person to live in Moab and to have already started a business in Moab,” she said. “We have an extreme entrepreneurial spirit, so we’re going to get through this, and we’re going to figure it out. But it’s not going to be fun, and it’s not going to be easy.”

Editor’s note: All international and domestic REI trips, including those in Utah, Colorado and Tennessee, are currently 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.

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