‘Zion closes immediately’; Gov. Herbert tells visitors they must pack up and go

Clouds hang over Zion National Park, Utah, March 20, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — After days of rumors surrounding the possible closure of Zion National Park, Gov. Gary Herbert put them to rest in a press conference Friday.

Young, bighorn sheep, Zion National Park, date unspecified, Springdale, Utah | Photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

“Zion closes immediately,” Herbert said in the press briefing. “If you are there now, you have until the end of the day to gather your belongings and go.”

The announcement comes after a growing chorus of local leaders appealed to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and the Southwest Utah Board of Health urging Zion National Park to temporarily close due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Springdale Town Council unanimously voted during a brief special meeting held electronically Friday to send letters written to both entities.

In the letters, the council outlined their concerns regarding the number of visitors that continued to flock to Zion despite Gov. Herbert’s March 27 “Stay Safe, Stay Home,” directive.

“This past weekend, Zion National Park received approximately 9,000 visitors, 70% of whom were from out of state. Over the last three days, COVID-19 positive cases have increased an average of 30% in the Southwest Utah Public Health Department five-county area. This is alarming and suggests the existing containment and mitigation strategies are insufficient to slow the transmission of the disease,” a press release from Springdale Town said.

A March 24 post on Zion National Park’s Facebook page seems to confirm that the park has been experiencing a high volume of traffic. The post urged people to find alternatives to the busy hiking trails in the main canyon as well as to practice proper social distancing.

“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers and partners at Zion National Park is our number one priority. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for this pandemic includes social distancing. We are concerned that current visitation patterns are not meeting current CDC guidance on social distancing. If you are coming to the park, please choose to visit areas that are not crowded to allow for adequate social distancing,” the post said.

This March 24 photo from Zion National Park shows many visitors to the park during the COVID-19 pandemic, Zion National Park, Utah, March 24, 2020 | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

As a gateway community to Zion National Park, the Springdale press release said the council worries about the health risk the pandemic poses to residents, park employees, law enforcement and emergency personnel.

Rockville town Mayor Pam Leach also asked for the closure.

“The mayor of Springdale and the mayor of Rockville came online and asked for this closure,” Gen. Jefferson Burton, who started Friday in leading the COVID-19 response for the governor, said in the press briefing.

“We worked with Utah State Health Department and coordination was made with the Secretary of the Interior and it was done quickly,” Burton added.

The St. George City Council joined the Springdale Town Council Friday in urging Bernhardt to temporarily close the park due to increasing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

In a letter addressed to Bernhardt, St. George Mayor Jon Pike said that after recent discussions with park superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh and other local leaders, the city council unanimously feel that residents of the city could be endangered by having the park remain open.

We acknowledge the economic impacts of a temporary shutdown are significant and harmful. Last year, nearly 4.5 million visitors entered Zion — the vast majority from outside our area. Yet that is exactly why Zion National Park must now close; the fewer visitors that come to St. George, the better equipped and staffed Dixie Regional Medical Center can be to handle residents in need of treatment for COVID-19,” the letter said.

In his address, Herbert echoed Pike’s sentiments.

“We rely on our tourists enjoying our national parks. Right now, that’s not what we want,” Herbert said.  “It will be temporary, but hopefully it will help us get a handle on people traveling from out of state.”

While they urged the park’s closure, the Springdale Town Council also asked that state Route 9, which travels through Zion National Park, connecting the east and west sides, remain open.

Hikers explore The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah, July 18, 2008 | Photo by Michael Rinker, St. George News

The press release said the road is an important thoroughfare for residents and communities and provides the quickest access to Dixie Regional Medical Center for some people.

According to the order, SR-9, as well as the Kolob Terrace Road, will remain open, but stopping at pullouts will be prohibited, a further press release from Springdale Town said.

Zion previously closed the lodge, all campgrounds, shuttle services and visitor centers as well as the portion of Angel’s Landing from Scout Lookout onward, but access to the park’s Main Canyon Scenic drive as well as many of the trails had remained open.

The park also closed access to its wilderness permitted sites.

In a message posted in the Zion Canyoneering Facebook group, they said that as of Thursday, all wilderness permits had been suspended and the park was not issuing any new wilderness permits in support of the governor’s directive.

The closures to Zion’s wilderness permitted areas include any of the park’s technical slot canyons, including any portion of the left fork of The Subway, all overnight backpacking trips, all overnight climbing trips and both overnight and “top down” trips through the Virgin River Narrows, the message said.

Zion now joins Arches and Canyonlands in Utah along with Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in the western United States which have closed due to COVID-19.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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