As Coronavirus Reaches the Grand Canyon, Federal and Local Officials Wrangle Over a Closure

Grand Canyon is the largest national park in the country to remain open, but local health officials say its time for the park to shut its gates.
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The Grand Canyon

Update, 4/1/20: Grand Canyon National Park will close to all visitors effective immediately, the National Park Service said on Wednesday afternoon.

Original post: Following announcements by the National Park Service that multiple employees and at least one contractor have contracted COVID-19, officials in Coconino County, Arizona, are renewing calls for Grand Canyon National Park to close. So far, they say, their requests haven’t gotten the response they hoped, as the park continues to draw tourists while area hospitals rapidly approach capacity.

As of March 30, according to the NPS, seven employees had tested positive for coronavirus, beginning with a worker at Great Smoky Mountains National Park on March 25. Chelsea Sullivan, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email that the park service’s Office of Public Health had immediately begun tracing each of the infected individuals’ contacts and determined other employees and visitors had a “low risk of exposure.” While the park service no longer identifies parks with confirmed cases, Sullivan said that none of the seven employees who had caught the virus worked at the Grand Canyon.

That figure, however, doesn’t include concession workers, who outnumber NPS personnel by two to one during peak seasons and arguably have closer contact to visitors than many rangers. At the Grand Canyon, at least one of those contractors, a worker at the Yavapai Lodge, has contracted COVID-19. Glen White, a spokesperson for park concessionaire Delaware North, confirmed the positive case to the Arizona Republic on March 31, writing that the employee, who had not worked since March 18, had been isolated since his diagnosis, and that the now-closed lodge would be deep-cleaned.

With 5.97 million visitors in 2019, Grand Canyon is the most popular national park to remain open, albeit with extensive areas including the Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails shut to the public since March 26. Sullivan said that “state and local public health officials have not asked for any additional park modifications from what have already been implemented by the park or a closure of the park.”

Shown that statement, however, Coconino County Board of Supervisors Chair Liz Archuleta said that local authorities, including the county health department, “absolutely support the closure of Grand Canyon National Park” and had called for it to shut its gates to visitors as early as last week. In a letter to Acting Superintendent Mary Risser on March 27, Archuleta and Thomas Pristow, the director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, expressed “extreme concern for any decision to keep the Grand Canyon National Park open in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

According to Archuleta, the letter was her second attempt to convince authorities at the Department of the Interior to close the Grand Canyon, following a letter sent to Risser and Senators Martha Sally and Kyrsten Sinema on March 26. Her concern, she says, is that current restrictions aren’t doing enough to dissuade tourists from coming to the county, which has reported 81 cases of COVID-19 so far, including 3 deaths, and seen some local hospitals fill to capacity already.

“The license plates [we’re seeing], from what we understand from some of the personnel at the park, are international plates, national license plates from every state within the nation, and Arizona license plates,” she said.

Local officials aren’t the only ones nervous about the risks of keeping national parks open. Phil Francis, the director of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and a former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, said in an email that employees at the parks are feeling the strain of being asked to do their jobs “without adequate staff, training, and personal protective equipment.”

“I feel pretty confident that NPS employees will quickly isolate themselves if they show symptoms. However, as we all know some infected people are asymptomatic,” wrote Francis, who has called for the parks to close. “I am also confident that NPS employees will know CDC guidelines and will follow them if possible.”

But, he added, “it’s not just about employees and visitors. It’s also about the gateway communities where visitors go and employees often live. Transmission of the virus occurs both at work and at home.”

While federal and state authorities have warned against nonessential travel, so far there are few legal measures to stop visitors from coming. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey instituted a statewide stay-at-home order on Monday, but the decree doesn’t mandate quarantines for out-of-state travelers like those included in Vermont, Rhode Island, and Texas. In his announcement on Monday, the governor said the weather was “beautiful” and encouraged residents to get outside.

To those thinking of practicing their social distancing at the Grand Canyon, Archuleta says: stay at home.

“The magnificence of the Grand Canyon will be here, and when we get past this pandemic, we welcome everyone to come to Coconino County and visit,” she says. “Right now is not the time.”