Timeline for reopening economy remains uncertain
Closing Moab to visitors to protect the city from COVID-19 has resulted in hundreds of local workers losing their jobs in recent weeks, and it will likely be months before economic conditions improve in Grand County, according to local health and municipal officials.
On the other hand, efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus to and in Moab — in part to prevent the local health care system from becoming overwhelmed — appear to have had a positive impact on the infection rate locally. Grand County, as of Wednesday, April 8, had only one case of COVID-19 in a patient who did not require hospitalization for her symptoms, according to the Southeast Utah Health Department.
The lack of cases, though, does not mean the fight against the virus — a worldwide struggle that could last more than a year even as scientists and governments fast-track vaccine development — is over.
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Brittney Garff, a spokesperson for the health department, said last week that it would likely be months before Moabites — along with most Americans — could safely go back to regular socialization.
“I would anticipate some form of social distancing for several months no matter where I lived,” Garff said.
When asked about the timeline Moabites could expect for getting back at work, in particular whether fall might bring back the typical level of visitation and business, Garff said that it was uncertain. “We do not know enough to answer that but remain hopeful,” Garff said.
Dylan Cole, chief medical officer at Moab Regional Hospital, said he was thankful to the local community “for showing commitment to the well-being and health of our residents,” adding that “the social distancing measures we have taken are working” and that the hospital is continuing its preparations for anticipated medical needs of patients affected by COVID-19.
“With our small staff and limited critical care capabilities, we will be overwhelmed if Moab sees a significant surge in patients,” Cole said. “Social distancing and sheltering in place continue to be the only effective tool we have to slow the spread of this disease.”
The possibility of seeing no more tourism activity for the rest of the year is a real one, according to Zacharia Levine, who directs Grand County’s Department of Community and Economic Development. However, he said, a lack of information is preventing officials from establishing reliable timelines for restarting Moab’s tourism economy.
“I think it’s safe to say that local governments are (or should be) preparing for the worst-case scenario of not seeing any tourism activity for the remainder of 2020,” Levine said. “At a minimum, I think they are (or should be) preparing for significant, double-digit percentage decreases in tourism-related tax and fee revenues.”
Levine said that travel and tourism “will be two of the hardest hit and slowest to recover” among global industry sectors, which is bad news for Moab in part because of how tied its economy is to larger forces outside of its control. “No easy solutions exist, but we are looking for best practices from around the globe to determine how best to phase-in a restart,” Levine said.
The indicators to watch
As for how people will know that it is becoming safer to be in public spaces, Garff said that COVID-19’s transmission rate is the data point to watch. Once that figure is less than 1, it will mean that the average contagious person infects no more than one other individual.
For businesses, the indicators to watch are testing levels. Garff said that the amount of testing, the percentage of positive cases, and whether infection rates have peaked in Utah and surrounding states will give locals an idea of what kind of response to expect against the virus. “All that being said, we want to be very careful that we do not get a significant rebound of cases,” Garff said.
Indeed, one of the country’s top medical experts, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said recently in an interview with The New York Times that, even once states “turn the corner” on COVID-19, they will need to realize that the threat it poses is still there.
“As long as there is virus circulating in the world, there will be a threat of resurgence if we are not prepared,” Fauci said. He also said during the interview that the “ultimate weapon against resurgence is a vaccine,” the development of which many experts believe will not be final for 12 to 18 months.
Fauci said that people would know that the “current phase” of the response to COVID-19 was nearing an end once the number of new infections and deaths are nearing zero. In the U.S. on Saturday, April 5, more than 32,000 new cases were reported, and 1,166 deaths on that day were attributed to COVID-19.