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Moab re-opens, with caution

After six weeks of imploring visitors to stay away, Moab is tentatively opening its doors to visitors.

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As many states begin to loosen stay-at-home regulations, outdoor recreation communities worry that they could be flooded with tourists seeking singletrack and sunshine. No one feels this more than the southeastern Utah mountain bike mecca of Moab, where many of the restrictions that have been in place since mid-March are set to expire today.

“I’ve been getting over 60-70 calls a day from people who want to come here and camp for the last six weeks,” says a volunteer at Moab’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Field Office who asked that we not use his name. “They all have the same questions, ‘Can I come camp?’ ‘Why can’t I come camping,’ or ‘Where can I come camping?’”

Camping of any kind, from RV parks to primitive sites in the vast swath of BLM land that surrounds Moab, has been prohibited since mid-March for anyone who is not a resident of Grand County. Hiking and biking trails on those lands have remained open. According to Moab local Mark Sevenoff, who owns and operates Western Spirit Adventures, the lack of camping and lodging options for visitors has left the ‘open’ trails decidedly empty.

“When we’d drive to a trailhead like Navajo Rocks, there’s maybe three or four cars,” Sevenoff said. “It’s like the dog park, you’re checking everyone out, looking at license plates, politely acknowledging them.”

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, Moab had to flex its muscle in order to protect itself from the risk of disease transmission to the tiny town. On March 16, in the absence of a state stay-at-home order, administrators from Moab Regional Hospital demanded in a letter that Utah Governor Gary Herbert shut down all non-essential businesses in Moab, citing concerns that the influx of tens of thousands of spring tourists would put pressure on an already limited healthcare system.

The 17-bed hospital in the outdoor recreation mecca is well-suited to treat traumatic injuries sustained on mountainbike and hiking trails, yet administrators argued that it would have extremely limited capacity to deal with the potential impact that a rapid spread of coronavirus through the community would have.

“Although the desert around Moab is vast, the town itself is small…cruise ship small…with similar isolation and limitation in resources,” the letter read.

The town of 5,500 people and the over two million acres of public lands that surround it have become a beloved spring break destination for tens of thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. With over 2,100 hotel rooms (not including short term rental properties like AirBnB and VRBO) and a mix of commercial, BLM, U.S. Forest Service, and National and State Park campgrounds that can accommodate additional thousands of people, Moab has had to take their re-opening strategy very seriously.

The lack of lodging accommodations and the stiff fines associated with camping illegally have worked as a deterrent. However, on May 1, an updated health order will be released with guidelines for partial reopening of certain Moab businesses. From wearing masks in restaurants, to 72-hour waiting periods between hotel reservations, the relaxation of guidelines are in no way carte blanche to a carefree tourist experience. Although RV parks will be allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity, all non-resident camping on public lands is still prohibited until Canyonlands and Arches National Parks reopen.

Sevenoff says that he’s hopeful that if done correctly and safely, Moab will re-open in a way that works for tourists and locals alike.

“I think people are nervous, though,” he said. “We did such a good job flattening the curve here, and only had one or two positive tests. The hospital really geared up and was ready, but thankfully nothing happened.”

Like in the rest of the world, many cycling events in and around Moab have been canceled or postponed. Because of its hot and dry desert climate, events in Moab tend to cluster around the spring and the fall. This year, those seasons will be clumped together later in the year if the health situation allows for it. The Moab Rocks Mountain Bike Stage Race, has been pushed back to October 10-12.

Like many others in the tourist-dependent town, Sevenoff looks forward to more action on Main Street and more dollars flowing into the local economy. However, he urges visitors to carefully counter their own agenda with the concerns of the community.

“It’s not about you and what you’re comfortable with, it’s what other people are comfortable with,” he said. “It’s the person at the restaurant or the hotel. If they’re asking you to wait in line or wear a mask, it’s not about you. It’s like ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service.’ If people have to make strange rules to stay in business or stay healthy, then we need to respect them.”