City officials receiving backlash say life is ‘anything but normal’ in Washington County

Coronavirus Updates

ST. GEORGE (ABC4 News) – In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the St. George area recently made national news after ABC Network News reported that life is going on as normal in Washington County — and local officials who came under fire are calling the piece incomplete.

ABC4’s Southern Utah Bureau Chief Katie Karalis sat down with local officials Monday as they defended their COVID-19 response, calling life in Washington County “anything but normal.”

While the national story has demonstrated that some individuals in the St. George area are not practicing social distancing, city leaders said they’re taking this situation seriously and overall feel their residents have done a great job following Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive.

Washington City Mayor Ken Neilson, whose city was highlighted in the ABC Network segment, sent ABC4 News the following statement:

“Last week I was approached via phone call from a Kayna Whitworth representing ABC news. She stated she was doing a story on what our city was doing during the COVID-19 to help stop the spread of the virus. She said that it didn’t seem as if we were doing anything and that life was going on as usual. I stressed many times to her we are following the mandates and direction from our governor to stay safe, stay home. I had agreed with her that we all could probably do more to protect ourselves from the virus. The article sounded like I agreed that nothing was being done. That was absolutely a false statement. She incorrectly inserted 2 words of mine from over 5 minutes of our interview. I support our governor and his directives. I am very disappointed that someone who says she represented southern Utah would fabricate and outright lie.”

Mayor Ken Neilson, Washington City, Utah

The cities of St. George and Hurricane are the only cities in the county to close public places, such as golf courses and parks, but city leaders said they’ve urged officials on the local, state, and federal levels to shut down Zion National Park, limit access to state parks, restrict local businesses, and make it clear to residents that now is not the time to make a trip to Southwest Utah.

“Pretty much nobody is operating their business as usual. Think of the tourism industry and the airline industry, areas that are affecting people here in our community enormously,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said. “We don’t want to have more cases, but we do have to acknowledge the few number of cases we have.”

Pike said that while the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, which oversees a dynamic 5-county area, declined his request for a stay-at-home order, he said he’s urged health officials to use Salt Lake County’s stay-at-home order as a framework for a localized approach in Washington county.

SWUPHD officials said they’ve closely followed the number of cases and hospitalizations, adding that public health policy in Washington County, with nearly 40 cases and confirmed community spread of COVID-19, may be handled differently than Kane and Garfield counties, with just a few confirmed cases.

“Although we have taken a unified approach in implementing the governor’s stay-at-home directive in each of our five counties, as far as our recommendations go, these are voluntary recommendations and directives. There have been unique, individual needs in our communities,” David Heaton, spokesperson with the Southwest Utah Public Health Department said.

He added, “We’ve worked closely not only as a department of health, with a board that includes representatives from all five counties, but also with individual county commissioners and mayors to try to make additional recommendations that serve the needs of their communities.”

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