When the staff at Moab Regional Hospital began modeling future COVID-19 patient surges, they didn’t like what they saw. If a rural community like Moab encountered multiple points of infection from visitors, let’s say just four asymptomatic people carrying coronavirus--
“Now that actually increases our community’s rate of spread four times as fast – exponentially,” said Moab Regional Hospital CEO Jen Sadoff. “So it was really important to us that we didn’t potentially have asymptomatic spreaders coming into our community from areas where there was, you know, community spread.”
Healthcare professionals in rural resort communities like Moab are publicly concerned about becoming overloaded with COVID-19 patients. Moab Regional does not have an ICU. The town made headlines when on March 17th, their Southeast Utah Health Department barred nonessential visitors from hotels and campgrounds in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus and the future demand on local healthcare.
But in spite of these restrictions, people continued to visit nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
“It was very concerning to us that the parks continued to be a draw [for] people from other areas,” Sandoff said.
Moab Regional and local health departments urged the parks to shut. Lynn McAloon, a public information officer at the National Parks Service, said the recent closure “was in direct response to guidance from the Southeast Utah public health department, the San Juan public health department, and the Moab Regional Hospital.”
So was basically at their urging or request?
“Correct – both,” McAloon said.
Now vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians are prohibited from entering any park areas in Southeastern Utah – this not only applies to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, but to Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments as well.
At the entrance to Arches, temporary signs announced its recent closure, stating that park rangers could issue citations to anyone in violation.
Arches staff have put little barricades up so no one can pull off. There’s a big electronic sign that says, “park closed, no public access, turn around ahead.” I don’t see anyone around. Not one person. There’s an occasional car coming down Highway 191 that runs parallel to the Arches entrance road but other than that – no other human out here.
I did of course, eventually see a human. Two actually in a Subaru, with out of state license plates, mountain bikes on the back and headed straight for the visitor center. I got in my car to follow them.
The out of towners eventually turned around quite quickly. They likely spotted the National Parks law enforcement ranger at the bottom of the entrance road.
The ranger told me that they are there to help educate people about the park’s closure and the seriousness of the current time. Communities in Southeastern Utah do have confirmed cases of COVID-19 and healthcare providers are bracing for more.
According to McAloon, closing the parks takes pressure off medical resources, which she hopes will help local residents.
“We’re trying to keep that resource available for COVID response rather than, you know, somebody sprained their ankle while they were mountain biking or something like that. We want to protect our community and our local resources for the people that live here and the people that rely on these resources to be available to them,” McAloon said.
McAloon said the park service will continue to evaluate the closures as the COVID-19 situation progresses.
Thanks to Molly Marcello from KZMU in Moab for covering this story. Visit kzmu.org for more of her coverage.