With COVID-19 cases on the rise statewide and Grand County at the high transmission risk level according to the governor’s Transmission Index, local officials are questioning the wisdom of allowing large-scale special events to be held in Moab. The index currently recommends that gatherings should be limited to 10 people or fewer for areas at the high transmission level, though it allows for special events with an approved event management plan.
Though events like running races and off-road conventions take place mostly or all outdoors, they still bring large gatherings of people to town. At a Nov. 4 Grand County Commission meeting, a working group was created and tasked with crafting a policy on special events during COVID-19.
“It’s become clear in the last several weeks that we are at a breaking point with special events,” County Attorney Christina Sloan told the commission at the meeting. She explained that county staff are overworked and exhausted, and still not able to adequately ensure compliance with COVID-19 mitigation measures at special events.
“We have numerous weekends with overlapping events, and we don’t even have the capacity, in my opinion, to staff or enforce a single special event in Grand County right now,” she said. “We certainly don’t have the capacity to permit, enforce or seek compliance with overlapping events.” She described an incident at a recent event held at the Old Spanish Trail Arena in which a woman refused to wear a mask “out of principle.” When staff called law enforcement, they were told there were no officers available to help.
“We have, since that event, tried to tighten up our coordination and communication with law enforcement, but we do just purely have limitations with the capacity of our law enforcement to respond,” Sloan said.
She noted that some events bring thousands of attendees to town, and often they rely on alcohol sales to help fund their programs.
“There’s a lot of evidence and data out there showing that alcohol is increasing the spread of COVID-19 for all the obvious reasons—people stop paying attention to the details and get a little bit more sloppy with their mask use, and obviously they’re taking their mask off to drink,” she said.
These concerns, added to the fact that Grand County is now in a state of high transmission according to the state’s transmission index, prompted staff to bring the issue to the commission.
“The last couple of events have made me very uncomfortable—have made my staff very uncomfortable,” said Commission Administrator Chris Baird.
“I don’t think we can keep these events safe,” Sloan told the commission. “We could have a superspreader event in town.”
The commission created a working group to fine-tune a policy regarding special events for the spring, possibly employing participation caps, alcohol restrictions, or other conditions or stipulations, or possibly canceling special events altogether. The policy will likely be linked to the county’s transmission level at the time of the event, with stricter or looser requirements corresponding to current transmission risk.
Rally on the Rocks
At the same meeting, officials addressed a particular event that has been the subject of much discussion: Rally on the Rocks.
Tensions have been high between county officials and organizers of the annual side-by-side event, which has been based at the Old Spanish Trail Arena for several years. The 2020 Rally was postponed due to coronavirus and then later canceled when parties could not agree on the stipulations attached to the permit. At an Oct. 20 meeting, both Grand County and Moab City passed resolutions placing a moratorium on issuing new special event permits to UTV events.
Commission Chair Mary McGann said that in response, the group plans to move the headquarters of the event into San Juan County, just south of Moab, but continue using the same 4x4 trails as in previous years, many of which are in Grand County.
“It would still have the exact same impact on our community,” McGann said, referencing complaints about the event from residents who say it causes too much noise and disturbance.
McGann, with assistance from Sloan, drafted a letter to the Moab Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, requesting that the agency deny a special recreation permit to the Rally on the Rocks event.
The letter quotes many complaints about the Rally received from Grand County residents, and includes an assurance that the county will support the BLM if the event organizers appeal a decision to deny the permit.
The commission voted to approve the letter 5-1, with Wells voting in opposition.
However, Lynn McAloon, public affairs officer for the Moab BLM Field Officer, told the Moab Sun News in an email that the Rally on the Rocks Special Recreation Permit was issued in 2017 and lasts for 10 years.
“Since the permit is midterm, we would not move to revoke it without due cause,” she wrote. For example, the agency would consider revoking the permit if the event violated BLM stipulations.
“A Special Recreation Permit (SRP) provides general stipulations and guidance such as observing speed limits, practicing leave no trace principles, keeping travel on designated roads and trails, etc.,” she explained.
She also said the BLM and Grand County coordinate for special events when necessary, and that the two entities have been in cooperation regarding the Rally, “particularly this year.”