Utah Town Eager for Tourism Revenue From National Park Reopening

Utah Town Eager for Tourism Revenue From National Park Reopening

by Grace Ferguson

As American businesses are starting to reopen, so are National Parks. Zion, Yellowstone, and several others have already started to welcome guests back.

Arches National Park in Utah, home to the famous Delicate Arch, will start its phased reopening on Friday, May 29th. Parks, roads, trails, and restrooms will be open, but visitor centers and campgrounds will stay closed.

The National Parks Service is taking these measures to keep guests safe, but it’s also considering the risk to locals in communities near the parks.

Moab is the gateway community to Arches. With a population around 5,000 people, its businesses serve tourists on their way in and out of the park. These visitors bring vital business to Moab, but they can also bring with them the coronavirus.

Even though Arches has been closed, that didn’t stop visitors from coming through Moab over the Memorial Day weekend. Moab’s Mayor, Emily Niehaus, said some tourists were camping on public land despite the order against it. Locals have noticed that the closure has kept some tourists away, but people with Jeeps, ATVs, and other off-road vehicles are still coming into Moab.

Grand County, where Moab and Arches are, saw three new cases of COVID-19 this Memorial Day weekend. Under Utah’s phased reopening plan, Grand County is considered to be at a moderate risk, while every other county in the state has moved to the low risk category.

Local public health officials approved of a May 29th reopening, which is why Mayor Niehaus said she’s for it too.

“I recognize that I’m not a doctor, and I’m not a health department. I don’t have any of those qualifications,” Niehaus said. “And so I have really respected the opinions and positions of both my local hospital and health department in guiding us with their recommendations.”

Niehaus recommends that visitors follow guidance from the CDC and the Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for public land preservation. The Outdoor Alliance has released a set of guidelines for visiting parks during a pandemic, including things like coming prepared with hand sanitizer and choosing parks closer to home. Those guidelines can be found on RecreateResponsibly.org.

Niehaus said locals are concerned about virus transmission, but businesses there depend on visitors.

“I mean, this is like one of the busiest weekends of the year,” Niehaus said. “This is when businesses see their busiest month.”

Being in the desert, Moab gets hot in the summer. So hot, in fact, that it turns away a lot of visitors. Local businesses depend on spring tourism, so the timing of this pandemic has been especially hard for them.

Justin and Hanah Cosenza are the owners of Moab Diner. Without the federal CARES Act aid for small businesses, their restaurant might not have made it through the summer.

“It saved our business,” Hanah said.

In March, state restrictions forced them to shift from dine-in service to curbside takeout.

“So we had to completely change the way we did pretty much everything in one day,” Justin said.

After that, the Cosenzas saw a 90 percent decrease in sales compared to the previous year. Business has been picking up, and the diner was able to restart dine-in service this month, but sales from this Memorial Day were still 45 percent lower than last year.

The Cosenzas say they’re ready to start serving more tourists.

“We’re grateful that Arches is opening because we want the tourists here, and that’s how this town thrives,” Hanah said. “Obviously, we want people to be careful and respectful of the locals, and the locals to be respectful of the tourists. But we’re excited.”

To keep customers and employees safe, Moab Diner is following all of the states’ regulations. Employees wear masks and tables are more spread out. The restaurant has also stepped up its cleaning routine, wiping down surfaces more often throughout the day.

Hanah said that other businesses in Moab are also looking forward to the reopening.

“I mean, this whole town is based off of tourism. So if we don’t have the tourists, then our little town dies.”