Moab camping

Jackie Sells savors the warm fire and sunset light in Moab, Utah last fall.Dispersed camping on public and private land for recreational visitors in three southeast Utah counties including the Moab area has been shut down for a month under an order issued yesterday by state public health officials.

The Southeast Utah Health Department has ordered the closure of campgrounds and lodging facilities around Moab to recreational travelers, seeking to limit the flow of visitors taking coronavirus-related shutdowns of work and school as an opportunity to head to the desert.

Public health officials in Utah’s red rock country have also shut down restaurants and bars for dine in service, similar to the order handed down Monday by state of Colorado officials. The order, released Monday, also calls for social distancing, in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to the rural area with limited health care capabilities.

The incident commander from the Grand County COVID-19 task force said that last weekend, lodging occupancy in Moab was between 75 and 95 percent, representing up to 10,000 travelers. With more than 2,800 local residents working in tourism-related jobs, that was creating an unacceptable level of exposure, said Orion Rogers, who is also the environmental health director for the Southeast Utah Health Department. 

Public health officials were watching ski area closures in Colorado and other regions as they formulated Monday’s order.

“We were seeing indications that people were looking at Moab as a quarantine destination, essentially,” Rogers said. “And that just does not work.” 

While the order is intended to apply to campgrounds on federally managed public lands, Rogers said that local officials are awaiting confirmation from BLM officials that they will in fact close down campgrounds to recreational travelers. Rogers said that while those campground managers have not “said no” to the health department’s lodging shutdown, they are still awaiting an official response.

“We are requesting that everyone follow the president’s guidelines which are to avoid discretionary travel,” said an official with the Moab Area Travel Council.

That includes springtime desert trips focused on camping and mountain biking that Roaring Fork Valley residents enjoy taking. With many individuals and families searching for something to do in lieu of work or school, such trips may seem more appealing.

However, many locals in the Moab area are concerned that an influx of visitors during this time will put them and their healthcare infrastructure at risk.

The order issued Monday by the Southeast Utah Health Department (SEUHD) requires that lodging purveyors — including hotels, residential vacation rental properties and campgrounds — no longer accept reservations from anyone other than an “essential visitor” or primary resident. Essential visitors are defined as those coming to the area to work. The order applies to Grand, Carbon and Emery counties in Utah. The order also applies to dispersed camping on public and private land.

The order is in effect for 30 days.

“The Utah Department of Health recognizes that confirmed community transmission in the United States significantly increases the risk of exposure and infection to the general public within Utah,” the order says. “They Southeast Utah Health Department health officer has found that the above facts, in combination with the tourist nature of Grand County, raise the likelihood of widespread transmission occurring among the general public and the need for the three counties within the jurisdiction of the SEUHD and the public to work cooperatively and proactively to slow the spread of COVID-19 and address any challenges that may arise due to disease transmission and treatment within the SEUHD.”

A message posted from Twitter from Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall urged her constituents to “be responsible.”

 “While a vacation to rural Utah may be tempting, this isn’t a time to travel. Rural counties are bracing to support their residents and shouldn’t be burdened with other-county residents and increased spread,” wrote the mayor of Utah’s largest city.

A spokesperson for the Mesa County Health Department, which jurisdiction over the popular desert-camping destination of Fruita, Colo., did not return a phone call seeking comment. However, an official who picked up the phone at the health department there said an order closing hotels similar to southeast Utah’s has not been implemented.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.