Tears and anger were on display at an emergency meeting of the Grand County Council on the morning of March 11, as a proposed 30-day restriction on public gatherings in an attempt to prevent the local spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19, was rejected.

The ordinance would have temporarily limited gatherings to 100 persons for indoor events and 250 people outdoors, following guidelines from public health organizations.

However, economic concerns and the potential impact of even a temporary restriction on local businesses were raised by some of the dozens of citizens in attendance. Attendees spilled out of the Grand County Council chambers into the hallway. In every corner of the building, you could hear the sound of people livestreaming the meeting.

After more than two hours of debate and public comment, the ordinance failed, to the cheers of local business owners. The council split by a vote of 3-3, with councilmembers Mary McGann, Jaylyn Hawks and Gabriel Woyteck in support of the temporary restriction and Rory Paxman, Curtis Wells and Greg Halliday in opposition. Evan Clapper was not in attendance.

In a statement issued prior to the meeting, Grand County Administrator Chris Baird announced that in addition to seeking the 30-day restriction on gatherings, the county had declared a “Local State of Emergency,” in order to apply for state and federal aid for COVID-19 risk mitigation and response.

“We understand that COVID-19 is very concerning and we are taking active steps to ensure the health and safety of our citizens,” read the statement.

While there are currently no recognized cases of coronavirus in Grand County, public health officials urge residents to remain attentive to methods of preventing the spread of infectious illnesses, including frequent hand washing and staying home when ill.

Health officials and administrators from Moab Regional Hospital instruct anyone with flu-like symptoms such as fever and cough to call the Coronavirus Hotline at 435-719-3998 before arriving at the hospital.

Pause on gatherings recommended by public health officials

Baird gave an impassioned plea for the temporary restrictions on public gatherings.

“I have very clearly communicated with the health department and the hospital and they are telling me that they cannot respond to this,” he said at the March 11 meeting, cautioning that, without action, he believed that “people are going to die unnecessarily because we do not have the healthcare capacity.”

Symptoms of coronavirus include fever, cough and shortness of breath and reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The disease, identified only recently, is still being researched and understanding of the death rate and other aspects of the disease is still evolving.

Public officials are clear that the risk to communities from the spread of the coronavirus is not just the disease itself, but its impact on the healthcare system.

Moab Regional Hospital, SEUHD and the Grand County administration are all collaborating on a regional plan to reduce the risks of infection on the public health and economy of the area. The COVID-19 Taskforce also includes the Grand County Sheriff's office, the EMS Special Service District, Moab City administration, the Grand County School District and other regional public health and safety entities.

“We all need to understand that we cannot allow our healthcare system to be overburdened, there are people in this community that depend on it,” said Baird at the March 11 meeting.

“If our hospital hits capacity and we have no ability to transport because other hospitals are also at capacity: that’s a very serious risk,” he continued, noting that an overwhelmed hospital would not be able to care for other illnesses or injuries.

Moab Regional Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dylan Cole spoke to the Moab Sun News about that potential.

“If we wait until we see community spread, then these social distancing steps are no longer effective. We’ve seen that historically in other viral epidemics,” he said.

Dr. Cole noted that worldwide, there are examples of how to mitigate the impact of coronavirus.

“We can look to the spectrum of strategies to slow the spread. Hong Kong and Singapore are both in close proximity to the outbreak but they’ve seen a nearly linear rate, as opposed to the exponential rate we’ve seen elsewhere,” he said, in contrast to the sudden and violent impact unchecked infections have had on healthcare providers in other areas.

“Those places show that early intervention can really make a difference,” Dr. Cole said, “and that would allow our local and regional health care a much better chance of staying within our capacity.”

While some residents during public comment compared the COVID-19 illness to the common flu, Dr. Cole noted that the mortality rate of the flu historically stands at 0.1%, while the current scientific estimate on deaths from coronavirus infection stands at 2 or 3%.

The Southeastern Utah Health Department expressed appreciation for the hearing, while again stressing the importance of planning how best to prevent the spread of infections in Grand County.

“The SEUHD also appreciated the public comment that was brought to the council and will take those comments into consideration as we continue to plan for COVID-19 and how to best protect our community,” said SEUHD Environmental Health Director Orion Rogers in a statement.

“The taskforce will continue to do its best to address this issue and plan,” said Baird after the ordinance was defeated. “We’re not discouraged by this. It’s important work.”

In a statement, the City of Moab said that the administration “has not asked any event organizers to cancel or change events,” while they are contributing to the COVID-19 Taskforce. “Should additional measures need to be implemented, we will inform the community immediately,” the statement, issued March 11, read.

On March 11, the World Health Organization confirmed that the spread of coronavirus across more than 100 countries now qualifies as a “global pandemic.” The WHO had been reluctant to assign that designation, with Chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus saying “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” at a news conference in Geneva.

“All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights” he continued.

“There are very extreme things happening all around the world,” said Baird at the meeting. “I just want you to know that I am worried sick about this economy; I’m also worried sick about people dying that I know and love. I’m begging you to do whatever it takes to slow this down.”

Economic impact will touch every part of community

Business owners in attendance at the March 11 meeting were blunt and direct about just how dire they believed any sort of official warning or interference with public events would be on the local economy, a stance echoed by the Grand County councilmembers who voted against the temporary measures.

“This would put a label on our foreheads that says ‘Moab is not open for business,’ and that’s troubling because this is the economy,” said Councilmember Curtis Wells at the meeting.

“Tourism is what feeds this economy and now we’re just getting into the beginning of the season. I take this just as seriously as anyone, but people do feel like this is an overreaction,” he said.

Business owners in attendance spoke strongly about how coronavirus was already impacting their businesses, citing reduced hotel rentals and cancelled vacations. However, the majority of those who spoke were in opposition to public health official’s recommendations

“You guys are trying to do something, I understand,” said Dan Mick, owner of a Moab guided Jeep rental business, “but you’re not using common sense...you are hurting people’s income and livelihoods.”

Public health officials pushed back against some assertions.

“We’re trying to compromise,” said SEUHD’s Orion Rodgers. “This was an effort to come up with the best compromise with all the subject-matter experts to try and mitigate coronavirus and the economic impact of these decisions.”

“There are so many facets here,” he said, noting that the most effective action would be to cancel all events, a solution that the Taskforce was reluctant to recommend because of its potential impact.

In a call with the Moab Sun News after the vote, Wells said that he thinks that “the best plan of action for our circumstance and who we are in Moab is to be very positive and collaborative with the tourism industry, event organizers and professionals,” while trying to prepare for any potential coronavirus cases.

Council Chair Mary McGann and other officials pointed out that any economic effect would not just be felt by local business owners, but throughout the entire community.

McGann pointed out that the local government depended on tourism revenue.

“We’re already looking at who we’re going to lay off. We’re already looking for where we can cut. What’s happening to the economy is happening to your government too,” she said, continuing that the ordinance would not have asked “tourists to not come. We are asking them to do everything in their power to reduce large crowds.”

McGann noted that she believed that, without action to mitigate public health risks, the problem would worsen.

“I’ve had sleepless nights. This is going to affect my family, my county, my city and state. But I’m most worried that, later on, people are going to say ‘why didn’t you do something!’” she said.

Some organizations had already canceled their events, including the Moab Skinny Tire Festival and others, despite there being no formal policy. Mad Moose Events cancelled their Canyonlands Half Marathon and Behind The Rocks Ultra, citing “mixed messages” from county officials.

“My prayer is that the predictions are wrong,” said Councilmember Mary McGann in a call with the Moab Sun News after the vote. “I am disappointed that some council members listened to public clamor rather than health professionals.”