As 2021 begins amid a still-raging pandemic and record unemployment, both business owners and government officials expressed cautious optimism for the coming year.

“I really feel that we’re going to see a positive flow of visitation,” said Elaine Gizler, the director of the Moab Area Travel Council. “I think people feel somewhat secure coming out into a rural area, such as ours.”

Grand County emerged as the hardest-hit county in Utah early in the pandemic, losing almost 1,700 jobs in two months due to the pandemic and lockdown this spring, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services. Tourism-related leisure and hospitality jobs were the hardest hit sector of the economy, shrinking locally by 21.5% from the previous year. However, by mid-summer when local restrictions began to loosen, those jobs started coming back.

“Unemployment spiked immediately when the government restrictions were placed upon the economy,” reads the Grand County analytics snapshot from the Utah Department of Workforce Services, “but they have just as rapidly reversed and are in a steady and downward trend.”

This rings true for local business owner Carl Dec, who operates Red River Adventures.

“If 2021 looks like 2020 we'll be in good shape, as long as we don't close down like we did in the spring,” said Dec. “Once we were actually able to go back in and work, and work out protocols [for COVID-19 safety], the rest of the summer was actually okay for us.”

Laici Shumway, director of the Moab Chamber of Commerce, feels similarly.

“It's kind of hard to say what it's going to look like until we know what the regulations are going to be,” said Shumway. “but if the regulations stay as they are now, there's no reason to think that we aren't going to have a really good year. We had a record-breaking September.”

Some economic markers indicate that 2021 could be a good year for Grand County.

Gizler stressed the availability of grant funding and support for local businesses looking to expand, and the county unemployment rate has also bounced back, from a high in April of 27% to 8.6% by June—only slightly higher than the national rate.

Both state and national parks, essential to southern Utah’s economy, saw record numbers of visitors during the summer despite the pandemic. Arches National Park had 28,000 more visitors this October compared to last year. A report from the University of Utah also showed that hotel room booking near Zion National Park was nearly back to last year’s visitation rates by the end of June, demonstrating that the trend is not isolated to southeast Utah.

There are statewide signs of economic recovery as well. The Governor’s Office of Management and Budget lists Utah at 4.1% unemployment, the fifth-lowest rate in the country. Utah also lost fewer jobs over the course of the year than any other state except one, which experts say indicates that the state may have an easier recovery than the nationwide average.

With the passage of an additional federal stimulus package, additional Paycheck Protection Program loans and various other grants and credits to keep businesses stabilized during the remainder of the pandemic will be made available. A host of other programs included in the stimulus bill, including small direct payments and rental relief, could buoy parts of the economy for the first half of 2021.

Still, the high rate of unemployment and closure in tourism-based businesses in the spring have made some view the future with caution. Some seasonal businesses closed early this fall to minimize operating costs at the end of the season.

“I still think we just don't know. Coronavirus is raging right now, it's worse than it's ever been,” said Dec, when asked about his predictions for 2021. “And yes, we have the vaccine, but we're proving to be completely inept at distributing that as well.”

The vaccine rollout in Utah has been slower than anticipated and there are concerns that delays could keep businesses—and lives—unbalanced longer than expected.

Masks could keep the economy rolling safely, but case numbers are growing

Experts from the University of Utah say that the economic outlook in 2021 may depend not only on tourist spending but on public health spending. According to a paper by economists at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, mask-wearing in public both reduces COVID-19 transmission and increases consumer spending and mobility.

“We find that state mask mandates stimulate the economy,” wrote the authors Nathan Seegert, Maclean Gaulin, Mu-Jeung Yang, and Francisco Navarro-Sanchez. According to the study, this is due to the average person being more willing to go to stores and shop when there is a state requirement and people within the stores are following that mandate.

The paper goes on to describe that, when effectively enforced at state levels, mask mandates can both increase economic activity and reduce the risk to public health. The authors state that mask mandates don’t have to be a trade-off between lives and the economy, but rather save both from worse outcomes.

Early on in the pandemic response, the Utah Department of Health was hampered by the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget in responding appropriately to the health crisis, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. According to documents released, Kristen Cox, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, wrote that leaders should be wary of relying too heavily on public health and infectious disease experts, advice that some say may have slowed the state’s initial response.

Masks are required at businesses everywhere in the state and businesses are required to post signage. Still, COVID-19 cases keep rising, putting livelihoods and lives at risk. Currently, all but four counties in Utah show high levels of virus transmission, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Those who show any symptoms of COVID-19 are encouraged to get tested at Moab Regional Hospital. To talk to a nurse about symptoms and schedule a test, call the Moab Regional Hospital COVID-19 hotline at 435-719-3998