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Jan Stock, National Park Service

Shutdown 'devastating' for federal workers, businesses near parks in Utah

By Lisa Riley Roche, KSL | Posted - Dec 28th, 2018 @ 8:36pm

SALT LAKE CITY — It's not just the Ruby's Inn customers who canceled trips to Bryce Canyon National Park over the holiday that have the hotel's general manager worrying about the federal government shutdown.

"We've had an OK Christmas break," Lance Syrett said, even though last-minute bookings are down enough that dozens of rooms have stayed empty during the already week-old shutdown that's expected to continue through the new year.

But he fears the real impact of money running out to operate national parks and provide other federal government services isn't going be felt for months, because travelers planning now for trips later in the year are choosing different destinations.

"In the hotel industry, right after Christmas is kind of our biggest booking window," Syrett said. "Just the bad press and everything that's going on … you're going to have that dampening."

That's what happened in the year following the October 2014 federal government shutdown, he said, calling any national park closures "devastating for future business," including from international visitors.

Some travelers coming from closer to home already changed their minds about traveling to Bryce during what is usually one of the busiest times of the year, Syrett said.

"We definitely had cancellations. They're just telling us, 'Hey, the park's shut down. We're not coming,'" he said, despite the state coming up with money to keep Bryce along with Zion and Arches national parks functioning through the end of the year.

The Utah Office of Tourism will have spent nearly $55,000 to keep visitors centers open and provide limited janitorial services at the three parks since the shutdown began Dec. 22, the office's public relations manager, Emily Moench, said.

"I give a lot of props to Gov. (Gary) Herbert and the other state officials who have made it possible to keep those portions open," Syrett said. But parts of the park, including the iconic Bryce Point, are closed, upsetting visitors.

The 200 people who work year-round at Ruby's Inn are getting frustrated at having to field questions from guests about the shutdown, the result of an impasse between Congress and President Donald Trump over border wall funding, he said.

They're also worried about their jobs.

"We haven't had to lay off any of our staff yet. But if it is prolonged, there's a chance of that," Syrett said. "We're not under the illusion that anybody comes to see us for any other reason than Bryce Canyon National Park is right there."

Springdale Mayor Stan Smith, whose family operates the Bumbleberry Inn just outside Zion National Park, said the state's assistance, along with help from the Zion Forever Project, means "the shutdown will hurt, but not drastically."

The tourist town depends on Christmas to make enough money to get through the rest of winter, when there are only a few holiday weekends that fill up the 1,200 rooms available until business picks up again in March.

Smith said he's concerned about the effect of an ongoing shutdown on the sales and resort taxes Springdale depends on to fund the town's more than $5 million annual budget.

"If tourists don't come, that affects our budget," he said. "Where do I start cutting?"

He said the impact of the shutdown needs to be seen as far-reaching.

"I don't think the federal government understands, the Congress understands, these national parks provide a huge economy for surrounding communities, not just in Utah, but everywhere," Smith said.

For the 5,000 workers at the Internal Revenue Service's Ogden service center, the shutdown means not knowing when they'll see another paycheck, said Jenny Brown, president of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 67.

"It's really worrisome," Brown said. "You're off and you don't know how long you're going to be off. You don't know when you're going to get paid or if you're going to get paid."

She said about 75 percent of the workforce has been furloughed and won't be paid for the time they've been forced to take off without an act of Congress. Others are working but won't get paid until the shutdown ends.

With a median income of around $44,000, many workers live paycheck to paycheck, said the chapter's treasurer, Shelly Carver, adding that they now have to figure out how to cover living expenses for what could be a long time.

The union isn't interested in blaming anyone for the situation, said Brown, who's worked at the center for more than 33 years.

"We don't get involved in that. Our message is basically we just want to get back to work. There's work to be done," she said.

The Ogden center is one of five nationwide that fields taxpayer calls as well as processes returns and deals with compliance issues.

The new year kicks off the busiest time for IRS employees, so the Christmas holiday is usually when employees get ready for the rush. This year, Brown said a lot of workers had to scale back Christmas and cancel travel plans.

"A time that should be relaxing to spend with family has been a time of great concern," she said. "The people I've talked to, it's the same story from everybody, 'What am I going to do?'"

Contributing: Mike Anderson

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