At their regular meeting on April 28, Moab City Council heard an extensive update on the coronavirus response from community health leaders, and discussed how state actions may affect local decision-making. They also considered how they will respond to a significant pending oil and gas lease sale of nearby Bureau of Land Management lands, and a new lease agreement with the Moab City Golf Course, and a statewide survey that could help recreation economies like Moab’s draw state stimulus funding.
The council heard from Bradon Bradford, director of the Southeast Utah Health Department (SEUHD), Jen Sadoff, CEO of Moab Regional Hospital, and Dr. Dylan Cole, chief medical officer of Moab Regional Hospital, about the current response strategies to the coronavirus pandemic. The SEUHD has released a new public health order that allows for the limited opening of many businesses, including overnight lodging establishments. The plan outlines limits on how many rooms a lodging establishment may make available and cleaning and social distancing practices, and requires a 72-hour rest period between guests in each room. The new order also allows dining in at restaurants, with appropriate spacing and hygiene practices, as well as ongoing symptom checking for employees.
Sadoff and Cole said they support the metered opening of Moab’s economy, and explained why the hospital has a level of comfort with doing so. Sadoff described the hospital’s increased testing capacity, encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested. She also said that antibody tests, which will show whether someone has already had and recovered from the virus, are available. Cole added a caveat regarding antibody tests.
“It’s certainly not established that [a positive antibody test] offers or confers any immunity,” he cautioned.
It is widely hoped that having recovered from COVID-19 will offer some protection against re-infection, “but it’s not yet scientifically shown at all,” Cole emphasized. “There’s definitely some questions about that.”
Sadoff also said MRH had increased their ICU capacity from 3 spaces to 23 spaces, with an option for 38 more patients in a “barracks-style setting” if the need were to arise. MRH has also been in constant communication with their transfer hospitals and been assured that those facilities are ready and able to offer backup.
Because of the solid preparations and partnerships that have been established, Sadoff cautiously supports the gradual re-opening of businesses.
“Nobody feels 100% comfortable, because it’s unknown territory and it’s a little bit scary,” she said.
Both Sadoff and Cole emphasized that this is not the time for people to drop their guard.
“Our only big hope is that people won’t just treat this as a green card to resuming activity as normal,” said Sadoff. “They need to continue to be mindful of not spreading the disease, not touching their face, washing their hands.”
She and Cole strongly advise the use of masks in public spaces.
“It is a significant thing you can do when you’re going to be in close quarters with other people to decrease the transmission risk,” Cole said of wearing masks. “It’s really about protecting those around you, not about protecting yourself.”
Cole, Sadoff, and Bradford all acknowledged that wearing a mask may not be comfortable, convenient, or familiar, but said we all need to get used to it. Sadoff compared wearing masks to using seat belts in vehicles.
“When I was growing up, only the really dorky people wore seat belts, right?” she said. “When it was made mandatory to start wearing them, we started culturally doing it. My child would never think about getting in a car and not buckling her seat belt.”
The SEUHD intends their new public order to go into effect on May 1. However, there is a possibility the order will be precluded by a statewide plan endorsed by Utah Governor Gary Herbert, which drops the state risk level from level “red” to the more moderate level “orange” and gives guidelines on loosening restrictions. The statewide plan is similar to the SEUHD plan, except in that it does not restrict overnight lodging establishments. However, Herbert’s remarks in recent press conferences give local officials hope that he will allow local authorities in southeast Utah to enact the measures they deem appropriate.
Cole, Sadoff, and Bradford also reiterated that they would be tracking metrics such as the transmission rate of the illness to determine whether restrictions may need to be tightened again.
As rules evolve and become more complex, education and enforcement will be large tasks. Bradford noted that most businesses and individuals were willing to comply with the previous public health order, once they were familiar with it, and he anticipates that the majority of area residents will continue in the spirit of compliance with the new order. City Manager Joel Linares encouraged area residents to speak up if they observe a violation. Reports can be made to city hall or the sheriff’s department, and can be made anonymously.
Oil & gas lease sale
Councilmember Kalen Jones alerted the council of a pending Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease sale.
“Moab is faced with an unprecedented proposal to lease over 110,000 acres for oil and gas development on BLM lands north, west, and south of town,” said Jones, displaying a map which showed nominated parcels near the Moab Valley.
“That would be a massive new expansion of oil and gas leases,” Jones said. “They’re being pursued by one small, Minnesota-based company that has expressed interest, and it’s nearly all the remaining available un-leased oil and gas parcels in the Moab region.”
Jones reminded the council that recent oil and gas lease sales in Utah had been sold at non-competitive auctions for very low prices, most being sold at the minimum bid of $2 per acre.
“With one interested bidder during a time of record low oil and gas demand, the auction could leave these areas tied up in oil and gas leases for decades, discouraging future trail and campground investments and impairing our outdoor recreation economy,” Jones warned. He added later, “It could potentially be a massive giveaway for the American taxpayer as well as for our recreation economy.”
Jones proposed that the council could enter into a cooperating agency agreement with the Bureau of Land Management as they carry out their Environmental Assessment preparations. The assessment will be released, he said, in approximately 3 weeks. The cooperating agreement would allow the city to be in formal dialogue with the BLM, and the city could decide to outright oppose the lease at a later time.
Moab City Golf Course
The Moab City Golf Course has asked the city for a new lease agreement. Their existing lease expired in 2015, and they had continued operating under the terms. Now, however, the golf club has lost revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic and is seeking small business loans, and they must show a current lease agreement to qualify for some of those loans and other forms of aid.
Linares asserted that contracts with the city need to be maintained more closely than they have been in the past.
“This contract is the epitome of ‘put it in a drawer and forget about it,’” he said of the most recent contract. Now that the city has an in-house attorney, Linares hopes such contracts will be kept more up to date.
Councilmembers wanted to see some clarification and changes to the lease agreement with the golf course before voting on it. They requested a correction of the legal description of the land and the inclusion of a map; a list of chemicals used to treat the facility, provided annually; an annual financial review presented to the council; a clear and viable lease termination clause; an agreement that the golf course would pay some percentage, in the neighborhood of 1.5%, of their profits to the city, should they produce a profit (usually they do not make a profit); and a sustainability review referencing the city’s sustainability plan. The council will reconsider the proposed lease agreement at a special meeting being held on May 1.
Stimulus for outdoor recreation economies
Mayor Emily Niehaus announced an outdoor recreation survey being administered by the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED).
“Right now, What GOED is trying to do is understand just how uniquely impacted we are as a recreation community,” Niehaus said. “So it is very, very important for businesses in our community to complete this survey, because this will be the data that the governor’s office will use for potential allocation for additional stimulus funds for our community.”
Niehaus said GOED had dispersed $12 million in stimulus money throughout the state, and 30% of that had been in rural areas.
“That was very reassuring because we are often forgotten, and the Wasatch front gobbles up a lot of money that would otherwise be really helpful for us down here in rural Utah,” she said.
Links to the survey have been sent to all Moab businesses licensed in the city, and Niehaus encouraged all businesses to participate.
“It really could bring state resources to us,” she said.
The Arches Hotspot funding committee has held two meetings. City councilmembers on that committee reported that there is still little agreement about what project the region should pursue to utilize a $10 million grant from the Utah Transportation Commission. Councilmember Karen Guzman-Newton noted that there was little enthusiasm now for a downtown parking structure, which was the original proposal for which the money was awarded.
The council voted unanimously to award a contract for site planning, architectural, and engineering services for the Walnut Lane affordable housing project to Architectural Squared, a local Moab firm. Senior Project Manager Kaitlin Myers said she is excited to begin work with the firm in the coming weeks.