Tracy Bentley had already stocked up her bike shop in Moab, Utah, and hired seasonal staff when businesses shut down in mid-March to prevent the coronavirus from spreading there. The town of just over 5,000 has a small hospital but no intensive care unit, and local officials were worried that their healthcare system would be overrun as adventure sports enthusiasts flocked to the town after Colorado’s ski resorts shut down because of the virus.
Moab closed businesses, hotels, and banned camping on nearby public lands. The measures worked: As of Monday, Grand County, where Moab is located, had four confirmed cases.
After officials took time to plan how they would transport coronavirus patients to larger hospitals, the town — and Bentley’s business — reopened seven weeks later in early May. Moab officials encourage visitors to wear masks when inside but don’t require it, leaving the decision for businesses to make case by case.
Moab, one of many Western towns with economies that are almost entirely tourism-based, is close to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, both of which reopen Friday. With easy access to rock climbing, mountain biking and off-road driving, the town regularly hosts 3 million visitors in a year.
As in Moab, businesses in outdoor tourism towns depend on people traveling long distances to enjoy a particular part of the outdoors. The same goes for ski towns in Colorado and Montana, which rely on income from the winter season to get through the rest of the year. National parks regularly bring swarms of tourists to remote parts of Wyoming and California.
But as the pandemic continues, local governments face a problem without an easy solution. The virus travels with tourists and customers.
Emily Niehaus has been Moab’s mayor since 2018. She said the town rallied together around the shutdown measures in mid-March, taking a financial hit to keep the coronavirus from spreading. But reopening has been more divisive.
“It’s been difficult to make decisions, because nothing will please everyone. Clearly, our business community wants to reopen as soon as possible,” Niehaus said. “We also have part of our population that says reopening too soon is going to get them sick, and they have extreme health concerns. That’s where the conflict arises.”
Niehaus said many businesses in town, almost all of which are locally owned, make nearly 50 percent of their annual income in the spring. Tourists come for the parks but eat in local restaurants, hire local river guides and get their mountain bikes fixed at shops like Bentley’s. After seven weeks of shutdown, businesses and their employees were hurting financially.
“I was thinking we wouldn’t have any real business until the end of the summer,” Bentley said. “I’m just seeing that as a positive, because I really didn’t expect us to be able to be operating at the level that we are right now.”
While she has been happy to see customers return, business isn’t anywhere near the scale she sees in a typical season, and she said she has mixed feelings about opening the town up. Bentley is in favor of the slow approach the town is taking, first opening hotels and private campgrounds at partial capacity before letting visitors camp on the public lands in the county, which will open with the two national parks Friday.
For Bentley, the uncertainty is the hardest part. The town hasn’t had a surge of new cases yet, but the virus might already be spreading through the community.
Gus Griffin, a manager at the local food bank, helps provide food to many of the same people who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. He said he’s not sure whether there’s a way to protect seniors and immunocompromised people in Moab if the virus starts to spread.
“I don’t know if there’s an elegant way to keep that community separated, especially with food outlets being a vector, even the food bank being a vector,” Griffin said.
Niehaus thinks Moab can keep the virus out if visitors would follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But as visits increase, people are showing up without masks. The town has a stockpile that it plans to make available at national parks and grocery stores, but it is relying on the good intentions of people far from their homes. Griffin said it’s frustrating to see visitors not taking precautions to protect the community.
“I’ve definitely heard locals grumble about tourists not wearing masks, as if they’re on vacation, so they’re on vacation from the coronavirus, as well,” he said.
Bentley has a mask-on policy inside the Chile Pepper Bike Shop and a hand-washing station at the door. She said that most people have been happy to accommodate the safety procedures but that a few have been frustrated. Bentley said she is happy to bring products to them on the curb.
Just a few weeks after the national parks reopen, Moab’s spring season will be over, and Bentley doesn’t think the European travelers who often come for the summer holiday will be showing up this year. Local businesses and workers are hoping the fall season can pick up the slack. Niehaus and Bentley both say they can’t afford to be shut down for the fall.
For now, Bentley is cautiously optimistic.
“We’re all doing what we can, and hopefully it’s enough. But there’s so much uncertainty surrounding it all. Is what we’re doing really working?” she said. “I think time will tell.”