SALT LAKE CITY — To stop the spread of coronavirus, Zion National Park will close.
Governor Gary Herbert announced the closure at a news conference Friday to discuss COVID-19. He said he coordinated with the U.S. Interior Secretary and acted at the request of the mayors of Springdale, Rockville and St. George who were increasingly alarmed at out-of-state visitors arriving, ignoring public health warnings.
"Those are in the park right now will have the rest of the day to gather their belongings and leave, but no more will come," the governor said.
At Zion National Park, a FOX 13 photographer observed that cars were being turned away and signs were put up saying "CLOSED." The governor said as much as 75% of the park's visitors were not Utahns, and he feared they could increase the number of COVID-19 cases in southwestern Utah.
"Based on some research, based on what has been going on in the park, based on some of the difficulties of maintaining proper [personal protective equipment] in the park, it was decided that this was a prudent measure and closure needed to happen," said Gen. Jefferson Burton, who is now overseeing Utah's Department of Health.
The decision was praised by the communities around Zion National Park. Springdale city officials said over the weekend, they documented 9,000 visitors to the park and 70% were from outside Utah.
"This is tough for me to be asking for this kind of a hit but we feel like it’s got to happen," St. George Mayor Jon Pike said in in interview with FOX 13.
Tourism is the lifeblood of southwestern Utah, with its redrock cliffs and warmer temperatures beckoning people down for spring breaks, now under way across Utah. But Mayor Pike said people need to stay home to stop coronavirus from spreading.
"Even if you’re on I-15 right now headed to St. George, I ask you to turn around and go back home. I never want that to be said again, except for a situation as extreme as this," he said. "But this is the time for out-of-state visitors and even in-state visitors to stay home."
Southwestern Utah does not have the medical capabilities for a large outbreak of COVID-19. The region has already seen one of the state's seven coronavirus fatalities. On Friday, Utah's Department of Health reported 1,246 positive cases out of 24,248 tests.
"I believe they are conscientiously seeking the most viable long-term success for our people and our businesses. We are in uncharted territory, but based on the information available it seems that the tough decisions of today will provide the safety we need and the best possible results for our future," said Kevin Lewis with the Greater Zion Convention and Welcome Center.
At Friday's news conference, the governor urged people to stay home, even as warmer temperatures may tempt people to travel across the state. He said he was speaking with his counterparts in Arizona and the U.S. Department of Interior to close boat ramps at Lake Powell to remove another temptation.
The governor has so far resisted calls for a statewide stay-at-home order. He has allowed local health departments to issue their own, something Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Morgan and Wasatch counties have done.
"If you look at what’s been done by different counties and what our directive is, they’re virtually the same. We’ve said this is a directive which we expect everyone in the state to abide by. There’s not really a lot of difference. I’m expecting the people of Utah to use their good common sense," the governor said.