Amid an onslaught of perilous tourism and economic shutdown during their on-season, Moab stands strong together

By Kya Marienfeld ︎ Moab, Utah 

I love living in Moab. I love the surroundings, I love the people, I love my job. But when things rapidly went from “it is not here yet, maybe start to think about it” to “everyone you know and have touched in the last 14 days could have coronavirus,” I saw the reality of where I live and its vulnerabilities in suddenly stark relief. For me, the switch flipped the weekend prior to St. Patrick’s Day, when, after our behind-the-science-times-President finally admitted that maybe we should be in a state of emergency, Moab’s Main Street felt and looked like the height of Spring Break. Restaurants were brimming, crowds of visitors were shuffling closely down the sidewalks, and the line of cars into Arches stretched back to the highway. While driving home that Sunday night from the grocery store (devoid of toilet paper and hand sanitizer for two weeks already), it sunk in for me that not only were many of the friends and neighbors I know not taking things seriously, but that every single visitor pouring over from COVID-shuttered Colorado ski towns wasn’t either.

The normal response to protecting your loved ones during times of upheaval and uncertainty is to want them near you, and my Mom had been visiting for a couple weeks at this point. In another time my impulse would have been to keep her here, hunker down together, and wait out the storm. But in that moment, watching tourists clean out the grocery store and fill up restaurants and stores, not a thought of #socialdistancing in sight, my only thought was “oh my God, she can’t be here, this is going to be BAD here.” It was like parents in World War II London sending their children to the safety of the countryside to escape urban bombing- but this time, I wanted my Mom back in the city, back to the high-capacity medical networks and forward-thinking government of Minneapolis, and fast.

After several days of monumental unrest and upset when everyone in town became acutely aware of exactly whose livelihoods depend on tourism (most of them), and *exactly* how many beds, respirators, and ICUs our small local hospital has (17, 2, and 0, respectively), our local health department had to roll up the welcome mat and order that hotels, campgrounds, and overnight rentals close their doors to new out-of-town visitors using an emergency public health order. Why? Because tourists were not making the right decision to stay home on their own.

As of today, no one in Grand County has tested positive for COVID-19. [Between the time of submission and the time of publishing, at least one confirmed case of COVID-19 has been reported.] I am sure the virus is here, as is anyone with a thinking brain, so we act like it is, and this overarching community adjustment has been as strange as it is sudden. Because the tourists are gone, town feels like it does in January, but without the celebratory “run by goofball locals” vibe that normally marks that wonderful time of year. Abruptly, we don’t hug anymore. We stand awkwardly when we see someone we know, our hands scratching confusedly at our pant legs when they seem to realize, seconds after our brains, that they can’t embrace a neighbor in the Moonflower check-out line. I have begun to treat everyone I know as if they are grieving, on high alert about the questions I’m asking so as not to touch a raw nerve and searching for hidden meaning in their answers, knowing that almost everyone I know is in a new, scary, unknown place in their lives.

I have that rare and strange thing: a Moab “big kid desk job.” Although I am sometimes disgruntled when I can’t join my guide and server friends at the crag on a Tuesday, I am proud and happy to do what I do. So when a great majority of those same friends and neighbors who are guides, servers, teachers, or other more “Moab-style” employees are suddenly out of work for an infuriatingly vague amount of time (it could be weeks, it could be months, it could be the rest of the year), I find I am even more fortunate, *incredibly privileged* even, to know that I can keep working, pay my mortgage, and afford my meals and bills no matter how long our societal standstill goes on. I hope those same friends will reach out if they need something, anything.

We are doing all the right things, but it is painful: the hurt I feel and the hurt I only catch glimpses of from others. But as much as our hospital wasn’t made for this (17 beds, 2 respirators, no ICU), our community was. This is when Moab is at its best, and I know that we’ll make it across that who-knows-when finish line, even if we’re all taking turns carrying each other on our backs by the end.

March 31st, 2020

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Interested in contributing to The Dust Magazine? Check out our submissions page.