Editor’s note: This report has been amended to correct a quote from Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells, who said he misspoke in an exchange with the Times-Independent and wanted to add necessary context to his comments. The words “to conclude” were added to the final sentence in the third paragraph.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declined a request Thursday, May 28 that the Grand County Council voted 5-1 that morning to approve removing capacity limits on local hotels amid the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of the reopening of Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
In lieu of limiting hotel capacities as requested by the county — limits proposed by the Southeast Utah Health Department that would have loosened restrictions set by the previous health order — Herbert moved the county from the orange “moderate” risk restrictions to the yellow “low” risk restrictions of the state’s color-coded pandemic guidelines, effective Friday, May 29.
“There is a significant portion of citizens in this community that support the Governor’s decision, and I am one of them,” said Curtis Wells, the Grand County council member who voted against the request, said after Herbert’s decision. “The local democratic system has produced what we have to work with right now. But it is a mistake to conclude that everyone’s voices are being heard on the local level and particularly on these issues.”
The Times-Independent asked Herbert what indicators made him confident the move to yellow was the right decision. Herbert said earlier this month that decisions to move areas along the color-coded guidance system are based on public health data. Herbert did not answer the question, but his office did provide comment on the decision.
“While the State did not approve Grand County’s request to modify the state’s standard low-risk guidance, we absolutely support the efforts of businesses to keep their employees and customers safe,” said Anna Lehndart, a spokesperson for the governor’s office. “It is well within the rights of any business to require face coverings — and hotels that wish to limit capacity or require rest periods between room occupancy may continue to do so.
“Governor Herbert strongly urges Utahns and visitors to the state to wear face masks in public, especially when social distancing is not possible. He appreciates all who are working hard to follow both the letter and the spirit of the state’s health guidance as we reactivate our economy.”
The Times-Independent also asked about Herbert’s previously stated position that he is “reluctant” to “dictate” to local elected and health officials how they handle localities’ response to the pandemic. Herbert’s office did not answer the question.
Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan voiced her displeasure with the governor’s decision Thursday afternoon.
“The Governor has touted local control, yet he has refused to give Grand County enough time to evaluate the impact of our busy Memorial Day weekend or the opening of the parks on May 29,” Sloan said. “Meanwhile, Moab Regional Hospital today reported to the County Council that its ER was as busy last weekend as any prior Memorial Day weekend, and Grand County Search & Rescue reported eight serious rescue missions in the last week.”
Wells accused Grand County Council Chair Mary McGann, who told The Salt Lake Tribune that the governor’s decision constituted “overreach,” and Sloan of perpetuating “groupthink” with their comments and suggested they could move to another state.
“Every time the Governor or this region’s legislative representatives take a position contrary to Moab ‘groupthink,’ they cry foul,” Wells said. “Grand County is a subdivision of the State of Utah. If our locally elected officials are uncomfortable with that fact, perhaps they should run for the legislature or move to a state where they can realize alignment with leadership.”
Brady Bradford, the director of the Southeast Utah Health Department, said that it was his impression from discussions with the governor’s office that objections to continued lodging restrictions drove the decision to deny the county’s request.
“It seems like there is a little bit of impatience with the idea of restricting lodging on a continuing basis,” Bradford told county council members during the Thursday morning discussion.
Bradford also addressed the issue of Moab’s recent jump in cases. After weeks without a positive test result locally, Moab Regional Hospital reported five new positive test results over the course of five days starting May 22.
No locals have been hospitalized for COVID-19, though, and Bradford said that although the new cases were something to “raise an eyebrow” at, they were not “cause for alarm.”