UPDATE: Gov. Gary Herbert on Friday afternoon issued an executive order approving the requests from Bluff and Mexican Hat to stay at the orange, moderate-risk level.
The rest of San Juan County has moved to yellow, low risk.
"Because of difficult conditions in the Navajo Nation and along its borders, we are transitioning the municipalities of Bluff and Mexican Hat from yellow to orange to signal a significant health risk in the area," Herbert said in a news release. "We very much appreciate working with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez on efforts to combat COVID-19. Our hearts go out to all of our Navajo friends who have been impacted by this awful virus."
The executive order does not apply to Navajo Nation lands because the nation is sovereign.
BLUFF, San Juan County — As most Utah communities clamor to “get back to normal,” the small tourist town of Bluff is hoping to take it a bit slower than the rest.
But state health officials and the governor’s office won’t let them.
As much of the state moved to relax restrictions and reopen most businesses with some precautions, Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen and the Bluff Town Council petitioned state officials to remain at the “red” or high-risk level.
“The Town Council asserts that the town is largely comprised of high-risk individuals,” Leppanen wrote in her first request on May 6 to remain at the red level, which means most businesses are closed and COVID-19 is considered a risk to everyone. “It is a small, rural community of 262 residents, the majority of whom fall within the definition of ‘senior.’”
That request was granted, but when most the state and county moved down two levels to yellow, which is low risk, Leppanen wrote another letter asking again to stay at the red level, or at least be able to go to orange, or moderate-risk level.
That request to stay red was denied on Wednesday.
“After careful review and consultation with the governor’s office, we disapprove the issuance of this request,” Gen. Jefferson Burton, acting executive director of the Utah Department of Health, wrote in a letter dated Wednesday. “Based on your population and concerns the town of Bluff and Mexican Hat are, however, approved to remain in the orange phase of the governor’s plan until May 28.”
Leppanen said the way residents have handled precautions mitigates any disappointment.
“Based on the community’s response, and business owners’ response, where most of them will be practicing a hybrid of red and orange guidelines, I’m quite comfortable with it,” Leppanen said.
“Businesses got together, when they found out I was going to request staying in red, and consulted with each other and came up with plans that kept them either in red or a hybrid between orange and red. We have a couple of businesses that aren’t happy, but most support this.”
There isn’t a lot of tourism right now, so there’s not a lot of enthusiasm about moving into yellow — and certainly not green.
–Mayor Ann Leppanen
Bluff is a small town with a population of 262 people in San Juan County that borders the Navajo Nation, which is suffering one of the worst outbreaks in the country. To complicate Bluff’s situation, the town relies on tourism to fuel its economy. But a good portion of its workforce lives with or regularly visits family inside the hard-hit Navajo Nation.
“(Our economy) is almost completely tourism driven,” Leppanen said. “For the most part, people in Bluff are supportive, as the numbers (of cases) continues to climb. There isn’t a lot of tourism right now, so there’s not a lot of enthusiasm about moving into yellow — and certainly not green.”
Melanie Kranz, who owns a collection of cabins called Bluff Gardens, called their situation “a double-edged sword.”
“I think it is pretty much what the mayor said,” said Kranz, who opened for business in June 2018. “It’s a combination. We want to be open. We want to invite people here to patronize our business. But we want to make sure there are restrictions or precautions in place.”
She said reopening under strict guidelines has been difficult.
“We’re having to lower our rates because we’re all fighting for this tiny pool of customers,” Kranz said. “We have to spend extra money to clean things, and to provide things for employees and guests that we wouldn’t normally provide. It’s costing money to buy all those products, and it’s just taking a toll in every way.”
She said some customers want to know what precautions are being taken, and they’re looking for assurances, while others complain about having to wear a mask, not wanting contactless check-in or check-out and demanding paper receipts.
“Other people are deterred by the precautions, and they just say, ‘I don’t want to come then. You’re way too high risk,’” she said. “It’s really interesting. But I think maybe going and trying to balance between the two is what we have to do.”
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Even if the state pushed Bluff to move to yellow, which allows dining inside restaurants, for example, Kranz said some restaurants would opt not to open their dining rooms, and many might have staffing issues if people don’t feel safe.
In her letter requesting to stay red, Leppanen said a “majority of (residents) fall within the definition of ‘senior.’”
She points to the number of positive COVID-19 cases on the rise, pointing out that Bluff had five cases on May 6, but as of Wednesday, Bluff had 12 cases. She said the numbers don’t provide a lot of help because some residents use a post office box, so she’s not certain if the patients live in the city, or if they just receive mail at the Bluff post office.
“The thing we look at is hospitalizations,” she said, which were listed as 26 in San Juan County as of Thursday — three more than the day before. “We rely on those who are on the ground dealing with this, letting us know where someone was tested and if they were transported out.”
She said as long as patients are being flown out for hospital treatment, “Bluff is going to push to stay in a higher-risk category.”
“I feel confident that the business owners are looking out for their health, the health of their families, and the community. For us, the business owners overall are very, very responsive to this.”
She said the council is looking at each day’s numbers and trying to make the best, and most balanced decision possible. Ultimately, it will be up to residents and business owners to keep themselves and others safe.
“When we get moved out (into the next phase), business owners will need to be very responsible,” she said.
Contributing: Jacob Klopfenstein, KSL.com