Health officials in southeastern Utah took bold actions this week to slow the spread of the coronavirus in a region with robust global visitation that was showing no sign of slowing. Now, their message to Jackson residents craving a desert thaw and recreationists everywhere: please stay home.
“As of now, there are to be no new check-ins,” said Orion Rodgers, environmental health director of Southeast Utah’s Health Department.
Currently, the only people allowed to stay in Moab’s hotels or camp on Grand County’s private and public lands are primary residents and “essential visitors.” That means people who are providing a service to Moab’s community “by doing some form of work here,” Rodgers said. Visitors are also prohibited from overnight camping in neighboring Carbon and Emery counties. Violators face a $1,950 fine.
In addition to a 30-day restriction on recreational visitation, Moab’s dine-in restaurants are also ordered to shut their doors, leaving curbside and take-out options for now.
“I mean, it’s a really hard time, and everyone can agree,” Natalie Zollinger said. “And this is like the worst timing ever. Coming out of winter, being stoked about just hiring and getting staff in place.”
Zollinger manages the popular Moab eatery 98 Center. In the past few days, the restaurant took decisive action to halt their table service. But they now face a full closure. “And it’s a really hard move because that means we’re officially closing the doors and there’s no money coming in and all of our bills are due,” Zollinger said. “So it’s hard. It’s very emotional right now. Like 100 percent.”
Local business owners wrestled with an impossible dilemma the last few weeks—how do you keep food on the table for your employees while keeping them safe from a global pandemic?
“My quandary was being a citizen here and wanting to protect our town and our resources from the influx, yet managing a resort where our livelihood and our entire business is at stake,” said Lisa Boose, resort manager at Moab Springs Ranch.
But southeastern Utah health officials eventually answered that tough question. As they drew up orders to shutter the region to most outsiders, they were staring down the barrel of a busy spring season. Tourists continued to pour into Moab’s hotels, restaurants and natural playgrounds. (The area’s national parks, Arches and Canyonlands, remain open though both parks have closed some facilities.)
That made Moab Regional Hospital CEO Jen Sadoff very nervous.
“This is a time for all of us—not just Moab to work at social distancing—but all of us,” Sadoff said.
Sadoff and her top hospital staff say flatly that Moab’s rural infrastructure absolutely cannot handle a large outbreak of COVID-19.
For one thing, Moab Regional Hospital has major limitations. The 17-bed critical access facility does not have an ICU and is equipped with just two ventilators. Moab also has the busiest EMS service in the state mainly due to mountain biking injuries on southeastern Utah’s public lands.
“When we are traveling during these outbreaks, we are doing a disservice to the communities we visit.”
– Jennifer Sadoff, CEO, Moab Regional Hospital
But, Sadoff said, “it’s not just about hospital resources, but about how isolated we are from other resources.”
The closest hospital, St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colorado, is 100 miles away. The hospital serves all the communities on Colorado’s Western Slope. It has 32 ICU beds. Roughly 10 are open right now. When St. Mary’s is full, patients are transported four hours to Salt Lake City. Sadoff says the hospital bought a ventilator system for the EMS to accommodate COVID-19 patients. But that won’t be much help if several patients at a time need transport from Moab given its remote location.
Sadoff also worries about folks who drive to southeastern Utah’s deserts with plans to “get off the grid” and avoid Moab’s (now-closed) restaurants and hotels. Because if they get hurt, she says, their injuries will certainly require resources from Moab.
“This idea about social distancing is also about distance from one community to another, it is about hunkering down and containing the virus in a specified and controlled way,” she said. “When we are traveling during these outbreaks, we are doing a disservice to the communities we visit.”
Sadoff is desperate to avoid the fate of countries like Italy where right now the number of patients exceed the capacity of healthcare services.
“Just like there’s not enough rolls of toilet paper right now because everybody went running for toilet paper, if everybody comes running for healthcare services there’s just no way to ramp those up to meet the need,” Sadoff said.
Health officials hope to avoid that situation by taking these precautionary measures before the first case of COVID-19 is confirmed in Moab.
As the signs popping up all over downtown businesses say, Moab is closed… for now.