SALT LAKE CITY — The COVID-19 pandemic has forced governments worldwide to embrace a delicate balancing act — with an open economy on one side of the scale, public health on the other.
Lean too far toward the economy, and government leaders give the perception they don't care about the safety of their constituents as higher numbers of people get sick. Venture too far to the other side, and they see unemployment rises as people struggle through financial hardships.
Finding the sweet spot between the two is perhaps most critical in small, local governments because of limited budgets, fewer residents and a lack of infrastructure.
In places like Moab, the pressure is intense.
A small "gateway community" known for its incredible outdoor recreation, it is a tourist destinations that people pass through or stay in while visiting nearby attractions. Moab draws millions of visitors each year, and tourism is where much of its revenue is derived. Sales tax, not property tax, provides the majority of government income.
"Moab, being a 5,000 person residence serving up to 5 million visitors, has always been in a tight spot in terms of 'how do we pay for the management of the people in this area?'" said Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus. "Fortunately, we have a mechanism in this state where we are able to collect sales tax. We are able to collect a special sales tax on tourism."
But in the middle of the deadliest pandemic in a century, inviting strangers into your home is taboo.
Options are few and unappealing for gateway communities like Moab: Let people in and risk their lives or turn visitors away and instead risk their livelihoods, or perhaps even the towns themselves.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, said Danya Rumore, research assistant professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah.
"Early on, some of these communities were seeing really significant tensions between full-time residents and people who were coming in from outside of the community, whether second-home owners or visitors," she said. "In my hometown, people were like, 'Don't drive around with plates outside of Idaho.' Because people are not excited about people coming in from outside of the community, because you could be a (disease) bearer."
"Early on in COVID, there was sort of this, like, almost xenophobia," Rumore said.
Rumore co-authored a research paper titled "Planning and Development Challenges in Western Gateway Communities."
The paper is a look at the unique challenges Western gateway communities currently face.
Prior to the pandemic, the team conducted 33 in-depth interviews with public officials and received 300 completed surveys in 2018, but as the paper moved toward publication, the research team stayed in contact with community leaders and got a feel for how the virus was affecting their municipalities.
Population boom in "Zoom towns"
COVID-19 has significantly expedited a process known as "amenity migration," where people move to gateway communities because of their natural beauty and recreation opportunities.
These municipalities attract many people who work remotely and are nicknamed "Zoom towns."
Communities considered in the study showed an increase in population by an average of 8.2% between 2013 and 2018, according to census data, which is a faster rate than in other rural locations.
It has only gained speed in the months since COVID-19 hit the U.S.
"We've had rural development experts tell us that they think amenity migration has been expedited by 15 years due to COVID," Rumore said.
It's hard to track exactly how much a community has grown due to the pandemic, but the anecdotal evidence the research team collected not only points to swelling populations but also to some of the problems associated with that expansion.
The COVID-19 effect
"We've taken to kind of saying that gateway communities have experienced almost like a triple whammy from COVID," Rumore said.
In Moab, the pandemic led to a sharp decrease in tourism, causing lasting damage to the economy, followed by a flood of tourists and amenity migrants.
The visitors bring not only their mountain bikes to gateway communities but potentially the coronavirus as well.
"We are quite concerned right now because the availability (of intensive care unit beds) is almost full through our region," Niehaus said.
In some cases, small cities like Moab don't even have intensive care units in their local hospitals and are forced to transport people to regional care centers instead.
"We're kind of a bandage and ship model," Niehaus said.
She noted that the increased availability of personal protective equipment and people's adjustment to their "new normal" have seemed to help control the virus' spread.
Moab experienced a particularly strained economy due to its pandemic-forced closure in the spring.
Moab shut its doors in March and started a phased reopening in May. Compared with 2019 figures of gross taxable sales and purchases, Moab was down around $41 million in 2020, Klint York, finance director for Moab, said in an Aug. 25 city council meeting.
Moab lost 43% of its potential revenue — the highest percentage among Utah cities that made over $50 million in gross taxable sales and purchases in March, April and May 2020.
Experiencing long disruptions to visitation is untenable when cities rely as heavily on tourism as Moab does.
"It was certainly at a cost to us economically," Niehaus said. "And we're in the position now that we've said, 'Yes, that was a good decision. We made a good decision to stay safe in that early closure so we could stay open throughout the year, but what that meant is that we lost revenue in our, you know, essentially in our highest grossing month of the year."
Moab is a popular hiking and mountain biking destination, which — like many other gateway communities — brings in money mostly on a seasonal basis.
"Money made in March, it kind of is a multiplier of two, you could say, of the actual annual revenue that we hope to receive," Niehaus said. "Because we're only collecting high sales tax over six months, instead of a year."
Kerry Soliz, a Moab resident of 30 years, said some local businesses have been permanently closed because of the austere spring tourism season.
"When the shutdown originally happened here in Moab, it was very, very quiet here, and a few businesses went out," she said. "Once we started opening back up, then we got a large amount of domestic visitors."
It's a pattern replicated throughout many Western gateway communities.
Noise, congestion and tourism problems
The oscillation between too little tourism and then too much has been exhausting for residents.
"We're hoping that we have a healthy fall, and then, holy cow, I think everyone on the Wasatch Front has come to visit us in Moab," Niehaus said. "While we have been incredibly grateful for the visitation and the attention, we've also, unfortunately, had a lot of congestion and traffic getting into Moab."
Make Moab Quiet Again is a private Facebook group created and populated by residents who are bothered by the noise of utility terrain vehicles driving on residential streets.
"There are a lot of bad vacationers that come here, and they're the ones that drive around with the profanity-laced flags and flip people off ... and honk at you if you're going the speed limit," said Moab City Council Member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd in an Oct. 13 meeting. "I think as much as it is the noise, it's that attitude that people are tired of."
Yet those same tourists are also the ones who sustain the city with their business. Officials say residents are grateful for their patronage but also fed up with some of their antics.
"One thing that we heard consistently in our interviews is there's a love-hate relationship with tourism," Rumore said. "It's sort of this double-edged sword."
The noise of the recreational vehicles, along with inordinate traffic congestion caused by the thousands of tourists coming and going each week, wears on residents.
However, Moab isn't the only city dealing with these problems, either. According to Rumore's survey data, 25% of respondents identified parking-related issues and traffic congestion to be moderately to extremely problematic.
Moab officials discussed several preliminary solutions to the noise problem in a City Council meeting on Oct. 13, including designated off-highway vehicle routes, a reduced speed limit for utility terrain vehicles and an established traffic checkpoint.
In a joint meeting between the Moab City Council and the Grand County Commission on Oct. 20, officials dropped the speed limit to 15 mph in Moab and 10 below the posted limit in the county for utility terrain vehicles.
They also placed a moratorium on the approval of any new rental or tour company business licenses in the the city and county, according to Niehaus.
Residents acknowledge that growth can be painful but leads to an increase in economic opportunities.
"It's just part of our growth process that we have this issue coming up," Soliz said. "And we need to figure out how to deal with that effectively so that people can still come and enjoy Moab and vacation with their family, and then the people who live here then also have a quiet home and a place to retreat from their job and dealing with the influx of tourists. So, you know, we need to make it a win-win situation for everyone."
Other issues arise when people enjoy an area so much that they buy vacation or second-homes in nearby gateway communities.
When people who live in urban areas and work at high-paying jobs purchase real estate in smaller communities, they drive housing prices up and often outbid residents who actually live and work in the communities.
"A lot of the jobs are tourism based," Niehaus said. "And so they're not as well paying as, say, a computer engineer. And so if a computer engineer moves here or wants to move here, they're going to compete to buy a home with somebody who's a bike guide, and if they have more money, they're going to win. And so we already have a housing affordability crisis in Moab, where a lot of our residents can't afford to buy a home. We don't have a lot of housing stock, so that exacerbates the problem."
In the research surveys, 82.7% of respondents said that housing affordability was moderately to extremely problematic for their communities.
Almost 50% of survey respondents also said that "average wages relative to cost of living are very problematic or extremely problematic for their communities."
Moab City Councilwoman Rani Derasary explained the economics of housing affordability.
"What you try to do for housing to be 'affordable' is to not have someone spend more than 30% of their income, whether their rent or related utilities or their mortgage if they're buying and related costs," she said. "And, boy, if you look back a few years ago, we at least had some industries where you could certainly afford rent … now there is nothing."
Housing affordability is an issue that Moab has grappled with for decades, Derasary said, and city officials and residents have employed various strategies to combat it.
The city — as well as its county — has an affordable housing plan. Moab also has a community land trust, a sweat-equity program and publicly owned lands that officials hope to develop then offer at reasonable prices, according to Derasary.
However, there are limited amounts of real estate available in smaller communities, making affordable housing solutions harder to implement.
Derasary believes that second-home ownership in Moab is close to 30% of the city's real estate.
Solutions and and a new initiative
Along with their paper, the researchers started the Gateway & Natural Amenity Region Initiative, which is run out of Utah State University.
The program is a collaboration between university faculty, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and community leaders that offers educational resources to help guide gateway municipalities through some of these increasingly prevalent issues.
"As we were doing the research, we were also like, 'We need to help these places,'" Rumore said. "After our interviews and all of our data collection, it became clear … they're overwhelmed; they have different challenges; they have a lot to lose, right? They are really special places. We all lose if Moab is no longer a cool place to go live and visit."
The initiative's online webinars and other virtual meetups help bring people from different municipalities together, so they can talk and be a resource to one another, she said.
Recently, the team launched a webinar series called "Boom Town," which offers Q&A sessions, panel discussions and online spaces designed to simply allow people to talk and listen.
Two hundred people attended the first, and more than 270 attended the second, according to Rumore.
The program was brought to USU in January and almost immediately became a hit among residents and officials in gateway communities.
"Almost overnight in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it increased in relevancy, because many of these gateway communities with long-existing challenges, their challenges multiplied with challenges to tourism economies, issues with small towns dealing with pandemics," said Jake Powell, an assistant professor at USU and the initiative's lead.
The initiative focuses on three pillars: research, education and capacity building.
Powell said he envisions a synergy where data helps inform community leaders who can then use the available tools, knowledge, support and information to make informed decisions that best fit their municipalities' goals moving forward.
"It's also helping train planners and landscape architects to engage these communities and recognize that they do have unique challenges — and this is sort of a future idea — but bringing students together for very specific opportunities to work with gateway communities," he said.