Social distancing ‘just not possible’: Advocates urge Zion National Park to close during COVID-19 pandemic

Southern Utah News

SPRINGDALE (ABC4 News) — The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that advocates on park policy issues, is calling on the United States Department of the Interior (DOI) to shut down national parks throughout the country, including Zion National Park, if visitors continue to not follow the CDC guidelines of social distancing.

The Trump administration has recommended guidelines to Americans that include staying at home whenever necessary, skipping non-essential travel, staying at least six feet apart, and limiting gatherings to no more than 10 individuals. While DOI has agreed to requests from managers of Yellowstone and Grand Teton to close immediately due to the novel coronavirus, other national parks, including Zion National Park, remain open.

NPCA officials told ABC4 News the Interior Department’s decision to waive entrance fees was potentially useful in stopping park staff from handling money and interacting with thousands of visitors; but, advocates now believe it likely just spurred more and more people to flock to national parks because they’re free.

RELATED: Search and rescue crews in Zion National Park responded to two calls on Thursday

“We’ve heard a lot of concern from park staff and locals that this weekend will again see large numbers of visitors at popular national parks that remain open to the public, including Zion, which goes against CDC coronavirus guidelines, increase the likelihood of transmission, and endanger local communities by exposing them to large numbers of visitors,” said NCPA communications manager Liam Kelly.

Social distancing is “just not possible,” according to NPCA advocates, despite the public’s best intentions, as dozens of visitors use the same bathroom facilities and hike the same few, busy trails.

“Secretary Bernhardt’s refusal to close iconic parks like the Grand Canyon and Zion, despite pleas from national park staff and local communities, is beyond reckless. He is needlessly putting lives at risk by operating as if this is business as usual,” Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association, said.

Pierno added, “The safety of park staff, visitors and communities should be the priority. Unfortunately, the administration’s actions are showing otherwise. We urge park visitors to make a plan to explore and enjoy our parks once it is safe to do so again, and not a moment sooner. These are unprecedented times, and it will take all of us looking out for each other to get through it.”

Zion National Park spokeswoman Aly Baltrus told ABC4 News park staff has taken proactive measures to ensure CDC guidelines are being met, including creating virtual visitor centers and shutting down Zion Lodge. Baltrus said she is still concerned that current visitation patterns are not meeting current CDC guidelines on social distancing.

“We are concerned, and people really need to take responsibility for creating their own social distancing,” Baltrus said. “We had two search and rescues this week, which really taxes our services and puts people in close proximity with each other. For example, we had to have six or seven people carry one person down.”

Baltrus said the Interior Department is following the state guidelines. If the Gov. Herbert were to issue a shelter-in-place, Zion National Park would shut down.

Park officials already closed Angels Landing Monday, since it can still be challenging maintaining adequate distancing on the chains section of the trail, but are urging visitors to visit areas that are not crowded. Areas like the West Rim Trail, Riverside Walk, and Upper Emerald Pools are some of our busiest trails, staff said.

Park staff offered the following alternate trips on a Facebook post:

  • Drive the Scenic Drives and enjoy the beauty of the park from inside your vehicle
  • Stop for a picnic lunch at one of the numerous quiet roadside pullouts
  • Hike or bike the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. This is a great way to see the park and get away from other visitors, but please use caution since the road is still open to vehicles

As services are limited, the National Park Service urges visitors to:

  • Pack out everything you bring into a park
  • Plan a visit at times other than busiest of the day
  • Maintain social distance from other visitors
  • Park only in designated areas
  • If you encounter a crowded trail-head or overlook, go elsewhere

This week, officials with the Southwest Utah Public Health Department (SWUPHD) confirmed cases of community spread of COVID-19 in Washington County. City officials have voiced their concerns with an older, high-risk population, confirming that 19% — or more than 34,000 people — are elderly in the St. George area.

St. George Mayor Jon Pike told ABC4 News Thursday that community spread has been imminent in Washington County for several weeks and the news indicates that social distancing measures are more critically important now than ever.

“Now it’s just even more important that we contain this and minimize the spread,” Pike said. “If restrictions were to go further, for example a shelter-in-place restriction at the county or the state level, it’s simply to me more of what we’re already doing.”

“The restrictions and recommendations provided by local and state health departments and the Governor’s office are more significant than ever, including social distancing inside or outside and groups of 10 or fewer. They need to be followed,” said Pike.

While most cases reported in 5-county Southwest Utah Public Health Department (SWUPHD) district have been related to overseas travel, the most recent cases in Washington and Iron counties appear to be community spread, SUPHD officials announced Thursday.

Public health officials say testing for COVID-19 is becoming more available in Southern Utah. While up to this point medical workers, the elderly, and those testing negative for the flu were being prioritized, health officials now ask that anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, mainly shortness of breath, cough, and a fever, reach out to their healthcare provider for testing.

“Our health care system has set up alternate testing sites, so it’s helpful to learn where those are so you go to those sites instead of going to the ER, where you can potentially infect other people,” SWUPHD director Dr. David Blodgett said. “The best thing to do is to call ahead and let them know you’re coming.”

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