Each October, daytime temperatures in Moab start reaching the low 70s. Tourism slows, some local businesses begin hibernating, and workers begin applying for unemployment insurance payouts. A few months later, in January, the county reaches its lowest staffing levels when 350 to 400 locals file unemployment claims.
This seasonal unemployment rollercoaster is routine for many workers. Most file their initial claim in November or December and collect for a few months before getting back to long days in their tourist-related place of business.
During the busier times of this seasonal cycle — from the first week of May to the last week of September — an average of 26 local workers claim unemployment. Even in the middle of July, when 100-degree days are the norm, unemployment remains low while businesses pay workers to prepare for the late summer and early fall wave of tourists.
This year, that wave of tourists did not precipitate — at least, not to the same degree — despite Utah’s efforts to prod the economy back to life after a complete shutdown in March. As a result, the number of people without jobs in Grand County is near 500, higher than during any winter of the past five years.
“The unemployment claim figures reflect the anecdotal information we are receiving from local businesses,” said Zacharia Levine, director of Grand County’s Community and Economic Development Department. “While some tourism activity is occurring in Moab, it is only a fraction of prior year averages.”
The short-term trend has been positive. Since the peak week in mid-April, when 1,303 Grand County residents filed a weekly unemployment claim, 800 fewer residents claimed unemployment. Additionally, the unemployment rate in Grand County (not accounting for seasonal adjustments) dropped from 27% in April to 8.3% in June, according to the Division of Workforce Services.
However, too little time has passed for a long- or even medium-term trend to emerge in Grand County, leaving local businesses uncertain about what the next months will bring. Those are months that, before the pandemic, would usually provide them the revenue needed to make it through the winter.
“People are still leery of traveling, and tourism businesses are trying to protect whatever cash they have in anticipation of the fixed costs they incur during the late fall through early spring months when cash flow is already a challenge,” Levine said.
For Utah at large, which already has a higher prevalence of the coronavirus than California, North Carolina and most other states individually, a continuation of the trend since June would mean steadily increasing COVID-19 infections and no substantial changes to statewide reopening guidelines.
As for Grand County, COVID-19 numbers remain low, and due to the relatively small population size, trends are difficult to distinguish in the case data from the Southeast Utah Health Department. While 11 people per thousand have tested positive for the virus statewide, the incidence in Grand County is 3.2 but increasing over the past two weeks at a rate the Utah Department of Health considers “high,” as is the case in a vast majority of other Utah areas.
In neighboring San Juan County, the infection rate is 32 cases per thousand people, in large part due to the toll the virus has had on the Navajo Nation, where 50 people per thousand have tested positive and 422 of the nation’s residents have died of COVID-19.