ST. GEORGE — Located in south central Utah, in the heart of what is known as Utah’s Color Country, rural Garfield County has felt the heavy impact of COVID-19 as travel bans, health mandates and fears of the coronavirus’s spread have dealt a huge economic blow to the small Utah county, which relies heavily on tourism to survive and thrive.
As area hotels, restaurants and other shops adapt to the changes of today in order to keep their doors open, they also look toward the future in hopes of pulling through the current crisis and having enough to survive until the tourists come back.
In 2017, the small county had a population of just over 5,000 people. Where the county’s economy was once largely based on extraction industries such as timber, mining and cattle grazing, now it is a different story, Tyson Brinkerhoff said.
A resident of the town of Tropic and co-owner of the Bryce Canyon Inn, Bryce Canyon Coffee Company and The Pizza Place, Brinkerhoff has watched the economy change from extraction industries to tourism and hospitality throughout the last couple decades. Brinkerhoff, along with the other owners, opened Bryce Canyon Inn, which comprises several individual cabin units, about 15 years ago, he said.
As proof of the economy shifting in favor of tourism, the largest employer in the county is Ruby’s Inn, and its associated properties, located at the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park, Brinkerhoff said.
With the national park as its crown jewel, the county is home to a treasure trove of additional outdoor recreation areas that draw people from near and far, including Red Canyon in Dixie National Forest, Panguitch Lake, Kodachrome Basin State Park and parts of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
But what happens when the visitors stop coming?
Lance Syrett, hotel general manager of Ruby’s Inn, said they are currently operating at about 5% of normal due to COVID-19.
“I can’t even wrap my brain around that number,” he said. “Just imagine losing 95% of your income. That’s where we are at right now.”
Though he didn’t give exact numbers, Syrett said at this time last year, the Inn brought in about $20,000 per night, while they are poised to only make about $700 per night currently.
While they try to scale back and mitigate expenses as much as possible, the biggest impacts are felt among the many employees who have either been laid off or had their hours drastically reduced, Syrett said.
A significant portion of the employees at Ruby’s Inn live on the property. Syrett said those employees are getting free rent for the time being.
At the Bryce Canyon Inn in Tropic, the story is similar. Brinkerhoff said they have about 25 employees who depend on the Inn for income. Several are seasonal employees who haven’t been able to work during the winter months and came back for the promising spring season, only to be laid off, Brinkerhoff said.
In Garfield County, tourism is an industry that is dependent upon a strong spring through fall season to stay afloat, Syrett said.
“Tourism, especially where we’re at, is kind of like farming where you’ve got a few months to put enough hay in the barn to make it through the winter,” Syrett said. “There is a certain point in April where we start making hay instead of eating it. This is the worst possible time for this to happen.”
Brinkerhoff echoed Syrett’s statement, saying they generally have about seven months worth of business to make 12 months worth of payments.
As hotels face hundreds of cancellations and other hospitality industries struggle, the county has declared an economic disaster, but even with the help of local banks and the possibility of SBA loans, Syrett said many are unwilling to take out a loan when they are uncertain whether they will be able to pay it back in the future.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the county was entering into what was looking to be a strong spring season, now everything is up in the air. Both Brinkerhoff and Syrett said there are dozens of businesses just like theirs who will struggle, not just in the immediate, but throughout the year.
“We could be looking at an entire year of economic problems,” Brinkerhoff said.
Currently, some of the hotels and restaurants in the county remain open while adapting to new health mandates.
“It’s like a hospital in here,” Syrett said of how clean their hotel properties are.
As far as food goes, restaurants remain open with takeout and delivery options available.
“I know getting a steak in a container isn’t ideal, but it can be done,” Syrett said.
The Ruby’s Inn RV Park and Campground opened for the season Friday. Syrett said that for those with recreational vehicles, it could be a good option to practice safe social distancing because RV’s are basically self-contained and allow people to cook and have restroom facilities that are not shared with the public.
Syrett said people who are visiting are enjoying Bryce Canyon National Park with the smallest amount of crowds he has seen in ages, including in winter months.
The national park remains open with limited facilities for now, and visitors are encouraged to check the park’s website prior to visiting to stay up-to-date on the evolving situation surrounding the coronavirus.
Kodachrome Basin State Park is open as well. An updated list of state parks that are open, operating with limited services or are closed can be found here.
Likewise, Bryce Canyon Inn remains open and also allows for visitors to practice social distancing as each unit is separate. The property’s restaurant, The Pizza Place, is also operating and they will deliver pizza to the cabins’ front doors.
“This is the best place to social distance in the state,” Brinkerhoff said.
In an effort to help potential visitors and business owners alike, a website entitled visitbryce.com has been created.
The stated goals of the website’s creation are to help area businesses stay afloat during the COVID-19 outbreak, to continue to provide jobs for members of the community and to provide opportunities for guests to have good and safe social distancing experiences.
The website has a list of Garfield County businesses that are currently open and offering special promotions.
That said, both Brinkerhoff and Syrett recognize the catch-22 of inviting visitors to their rural area with extremely limited hospital services while still needing visitors to come in order to stay afloat. That is why they continue to double their efforts to keep their properties clean, healthy and safe.
They also encourage those who do choose to visit to recreate responsibly and follow all the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including washing hands, not congregating in groups over 10 people and maintaining at least six feet of distance between people not in visitors’ immediate families.
Looking toward the future, Brinkerhoff and Syrett said they hope when the current situation is over, travelers will consider coming to Bryce Canyon and the surrounding areas on vacation.
One of the best things people can do, Syrett said, is to make a reservation for the future. Syrett said people don’t necessarily even have to pre-pay at certain properties, but just making the reservation signals to business owners that they may be able to keep their doors open.
“(Reservations) makes people feel good about staying in business,” Syrett said.
“The best way to help, when this virus clears out, is to start traveling again,” he said.
Both business owners know things will be difficult financially for the majority of travelers, which is why they are encouraging Americans, and Utahns particularly, to take their vacations a little closer to home.
“This is a good year to do it,” Syrett said.
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