Grand County, bending to business, votes down COVID-19 response

Business leaders show up en masse to speak against ban on large gatherings

Brady Bradford, the health director for the Southeastern Utah Health Department, speaks to a room and hallway full of business owners and others about the lack of resources in Grand County to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19. Photo by Carter Pape

Southeastern Utah health officials told a room crowded with local business leaders and elected officials Wednesday morning that it is a case of “when” not “if” COVID-19 reaches Grand County.

The same morning, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

After roughly two hours of public comment almost exclusively from local business owners expressing fears of the economic impacts and possible layoffs that an emergency declaration could cause the county, the Grand County Council voted down in a 3-3 tie an executive order that health and county officials said was designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 into Grand County.

The March 11 vote reflected fear among the business community about what the emergency declaration would mean for jobs in Grand County, with many business owners saying at the meeting that they would be in a position to have to make layoffs and lose significant revenue if the county passed the executive order.

Voting in favor of the executive order were Chair Mary McGann, Vice Chair Jaylyn Hawks and Council Member Gabriel Woytek. Voting against were Council Members Curtis Wells, Greg Halliday and Rory Paxman. Evan Clapper was not present for the vote.

The executive order would have prohibited indoor gatherings larger than 100 people and outdoor gatherings larger than 250 people, with exceptions for churches, schools, grocers, health care facilities, hotels (except conference rooms), government facilities and industrial facilities. It also would have put certain regulations on organizers of large local events, such as submitting rosters of people who worked or volunteered at the event and establishing a refund policy.

Business leaders, including event organizers heading up Mad Moose Events and Skinny Tire Events, which both decided the day before the county’s emergency meeting to cancel events upcoming this weekend, showed up en masse to speak against the executive order. The business leaders emphasized the layoffs that event cancellations and fear — which they said the executive order stoked — would cause, accusing the council of making the decision to stop tourism in Moab.

McGann refuted the claim, saying that “what is happening to your local businesses is happening to your government,” referring to the loss of business revenue and thus tax revenue for the county. She said the county was already thinking about layoffs to county staff and that she wanted to pass the order to preempt a reality in which Grand County citizens turned to the council after a serious outbreak and asked, “Why the hell did you let it get this to this point?”

Wells said he voted no because the problem was one of “process,” and that the order was “heavy” and “authoritative.”

“Today’s vote was not about what we’re currently doing or planning to do as a community to prepare for any potential positive cases of coronavirus in Moab, but about how we communicate that to the public,” Wells said. “Travel and tourism is a sensitive and fragile commodity in circumstances like this. I want Grand County to work with and communicate to the event organizers and industry professionals collaboratively. We are a small town with millions of visitors annually and we need to emphasize communication and precautions.”

Grand County Administrator Chris Baird spoke at the start of the meeting about the public health concerns presented by COVID-19, saying that the county lacks resources to deal properly with a pandemic in the county. Southeastern Utah Health Department officials Brady Bradford, the health director for the department, and Orion Rogers, the health department’s environmental health director, echoed the sentiment that Grand was imminently unprepared for an outbreak.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 re-accelerated in February, reaching just under 120,000 worldwide on Tuesday, March 10, with the number of deaths worldwide reaching 4,290 the same day.

Moab Regional Hospital CEO Jen Sadoff, alongside the hospital’s Chief Medical Officer Dylan Cole, confirmed what Baird, Rogers and Bradford said. Cole said that the disease and position of the hospital were “very scary from a hospital and health care perspective,” considering the supply shortages the hospital is experiencing — doctors are needing to re-wear masks between patients — and the possibility of “overwhelming” the health care system in Grand County if the disease reaches the rural area.

The hospital has only six rooms that can sustain negative pressure, i.e., that are proper to use for quarantining, including an obstetrician room for childbirth. The hospital said that if patients need a ventilator — a possibility for people infected by COVID-19, which affects the respiratory system — they may be transferred or stay at another hospital.

Given the lack of resources available to Grand County, the hospital and even the region of southeastern Utah to contain a possible COVID-19 outbreak, the officials with the Southeastern Utah Health Department said that efforts to create a policy region-wide regarding large public gatherings was already underway.

They characterized the executive order before Grand County as one designed to mitigate rather than stop the spread of COVID-19, which they said would inevitably reach the county. They said they were approaching the situation as one of containment rather than prevention.

Laici Shumway, the executive director of the Moab Chamber of Commerce, sent an email to members following the event to “congratulate the business community for showing up with such a strong presence” at the council meeting. In a statement to The Times-Independent, she emphasized the positive economic impact she said the decision would have.

“There are many factors to be considered when trying to mitigate the spread of an infectious disease, and we do believe extra precaution should be taken,” Shumway said. “Decisions made with economic impact such as these are not made lightly nor should they have to be made in haste. We empathize with the event organizers put in this untimely situation. We are looking forward to events in the future having greater local government direction, support and resources to help these events continue with safety and precaution.”

Baird said that regardless of the outcome of the vote on the executive order, “the Grand County COVID-19 Task Force is going to continue to prepare and engage with the community to reduce risk, and effectively respond to potential cases.”

At the end of the meeting, after numerous public comments critical of the county’s effort to pass the executive order, Baird spoke candidly and emotionally about his worries regarding COVID-19 in Grand County, emphasizing that the county “does not have the capacity to deal with a large outbreak,” and that he was “worried sick” about the local economy.

“I’m doing my best to try to save people’s lives,” Baird said.

Chris Baird addresses a crowd of business owners and other Moabites about the county’s lack of resources to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19. He and officials with the Southeastern Utah Health Department and Moab Regional Hospital argued for measures to mitigate the spread of the disease, which he said would inevitably show up in Moab. Photo by Carter Pape

The Southeastern Utah Health Department released the following statement following the vote:

The Southeast Utah Health Department (SEUHD) appreciated the opportunity to present its stance to the Grand County Council concerning the proposed Executive Order that would restrict the size of mass gatherings in Grand County. An additional element of the Executive Order stressed the importance of event planners preparing plans that can help address the spread of disease and we will continue to ask that event planners implement those recommendations as they prepare to host events.

The SEUHD also appreciated the public comment that was brought to The Council and will take those comments into consideration as we continue to plan for COVID19 and how to best protect our community. The SEUHD would like to stress that social distancing, staying home when ill, and proper hygiene techniques including hand washing for 20 seconds is the best way for people to protect themselves and others from disease.

It is also important to remember that flu is also a serious concern and getting a flu vaccination is another measure that can help to prevent the spread of disease in our community.

Orion Rogers, Environmental Health Director