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'A balancing act': How Summit County plans to weigh tourism and health safety in coming months

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'A balancing act': How Summit County plans to weigh tourism and health safety in coming months

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Apr. 24, 2020 at 4:37 p.m.

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PARK CITY — Don’t expect large gatherings in Summit County anytime soon, and that may hurt a county already feeling impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I don’t think that’s what people want to hear but I think it’s important we give everybody realistic expectations," said Park City Mayor Andy Beerman during a virtual roundtable involving Park City and Summit County leaders Friday morning. "It’s a lot better to know what our boundaries are so we can plan. … It’ll be a long time before we can get back to what we called normal before."

But what will longer gathering restrictions mean for popular summer events like the Kimball Arts Festival or just the county’s overall tourism industry?

The county’s health department has received 351 COVID-19 cases, which accounts for about 9.3% of the state’s total cases, according to state health department data released Friday. The situation is improving, though. Dr. Angela Dunn, the state's epidemiologist, noted that the county's case counts are slowing down.

"Summit County was our first hot spot in Utah and they responded in part by issuing a shelter-in-place order, increasing testing and continuing contact tracing, and they've seen successes due to these efforts," she said, during a press conference at the Utah Capitol Friday afternoon. "They've had a steady decline in cases since April 2."

That said, its case rate — cases per capita — is still double any other health districts in the state so far. The county will also participate in an upcoming pilot antibody testing study that may show if more people were infected in the county than already known, Summit County Health Department director Rich Bullough said.

Summit County has also been adversely affected economically. A large spread early on forced the county to enact closures, including ski resorts along the Wasatch backcountry. The county reported 10.4% of the unemployment claims in the first three weeks of Utah's unemployment spike, according to a state report last week. Only Grand and Garfield counties — also home to Utah's recreation tourism — reported a higher share during that time frame.

Therein lies the problem county leaders are trying to solve. Since many of the area’s original cases were linked to visitation, tourism helped create the issue. Shutting down tourism for a long period of time creates a completely different issue.

Posted by City Government of Park City, Utah on Friday, April 24, 2020

"It’s going to be a balancing act," Bullough said, adding there’s another degree of difficulty because so many of Summit County’s workforce includes residents outside of the county. "For businesses to be economically-viable — many of them — it’s going to be beneficial to have visitors. At the same time, we want to be smart about this."

Even as the Summit County’s case numbers are leveling off a bit, cases in nearby parts of the state are continuing to grow. Neighboring Wasatch County has the second-highest rate and another neighbor, Salt Lake County, is where half of the state’s total cases have been recorded, according to the Utah Department of Health.

"We definitely don’t want large numbers of visitors," Bullough added.

While some Utah communities may have a more lenient approach as the state prepares to ease some restrictions as early as next week, Summit County manager Tom Fisher said the county is preparing to closely follow a 20-person limit on gatherings over the next few months. Those gathering restrictions are related to the state’s stabilization or "orange" phase in the plan to reopen Utah’s economy. County leaders are planning to remain in that stage for at least 3 to 6 months.

It’s going to be a balancing act. For businesses to be economically-viable — many of them — it’s going to be beneficial to have visitors. At the same time, we want to be smart about this.

–Summit County Health Department director Rich Bullough

The events Fisher talked about included personal events like weddings and funerals, as well as larger community events. Some of the region’s community events that traditionally take place during the summer have already been canceled. Fisher said he was doubtful other events like the Kimball Arts Festival could be pulled off the same way it has in years past. It’s still too early to tell how the pandemic may affect the Sundance Film Festival next winter.

Fisher also said his office has worked with event planners and asked them to be creative in finding solutions that would allow an event to continue without compromising public health safety.

"If people have ideas of how gatherings can happen that follow the rest of the rules and make sure that it protects public health, we are happy to hear them," he said. "Until we understand how those things can work, I think the general guidelines are going to be that we can’t have gatherings over 20. I know that’s a hard message to send … but that’s our reality this year."

Bullough explained that the public gathering limit is based on the number of everyone in a building. So if there’s a restaurant that staffs 10 people, only 10 customers at a time would be acceptable. The county plans to release exact guidelines for food service soon, he added.

The area’s restaurant and lodging industry figures — two sectors hit hard by the pandemic — have held discussions about the plans in the coming months, Park City Councilor Max Doilney said. There are possible ways to help them, as well. Katie Wright, executive director of Park City’s community foundation, pointed out funds typically used for tourism marketing could be redirected to provide support for vulnerable families and nonprofits in the area to protect the community.

"It’s going to be a long process but it comes back to that community effort and us working together to try and bring each industry in time," Doilney said. "These practices are going to be tested in May and June and we’ll have to see what happens after that, I believe."

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