Utah cities face unexpected, unique challenges in COVID-19 era

A UtahPoliy.com Q&A series from the Utah League of Cities and Towns:

Utah’s cities and towns are facing new challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.  While we work to protect the physical health of our residents and economic health of our cities, what unexpected and perhaps unique challenges or impacts of COVID-19 have local leaders faced in their cities?

Mayor Emily Niehaus, Moab: Moab experienced a significant decrease in international travel and a massive increase in domestic travel this Fall. The behaviors of these two types of visitors led to unexpected challenges. International travelers are more likely to stay in hotels, however, domestic travelers come in RVs and campers. This has led to camping congestion. Also, we are experiencing more conflict among different types of recreation. The biggest conflict is between motorized recreation and everyone else because of the noise and the trail impact. Within the city, our grocers are working hard to keep up with the significant demand for unprepared food due to the increase in campers. It seems locals are competing with visitors for silly things like kitchen sponges. Moab is grateful for the sales tax revenue from our visitors. We’ve just struggled to adjust to a different demographic while also deep cleaning everything all the time to stay safe to stay open!

Mayor Andy Beerman, Park City: Physical constraints: Downtown Park City is located in a small, narrow valley and is filled with charming but undersized historic buildings. What was previously cozy and charming, is now challenging for many of our local businesses-especially restaurants. In response, Park City waived fees and expedited approvals for outdoor dining and retail.  Moreover, we implemented strategic closures of Main Street to allow for pedestrian days.  This extra outdoor space allowed for robust summer business.  While we expect some businesses to experiment with tenting, we expect winter to be more challenging and are discussing ways to better facilitate carry-out.

Communications: Nothing replaces face-to-face interaction, but participation has soared with digital outreach.  We typically have 2-3 community gatherings each month, and attendance ranged from 20-50 people, with a peak around 200 for annual events like the State of the City. While sheltering in place, we experimented with digital gatherings and began hosting regular online Q&As and virtual roundtables highlighting COVID, economic, educational, and community topics.  We hosted three per week-one in Spanish–and attendance typically ranged from 80-220 participants, with hundreds of additional views of the recorded sessions.  Going forward-even post COVID-we plan to continue these digital gatherings and will likely “hybridize” future in-person events.

Events: Events have been the catalyst for Park City’s economy for two decades. They have also become the frustration of residents impacted by the surges of people and traffic.  We typically have 180 event days with the highest concentration in the summer where we have big events nearly every weekend. In our 2020 community vision, events were a flashpoint and residents demanded a “better balance” between locals and tourist.  Park City residents wanted a slow-down, what we got was a full stop. Due to COVID restrictions, we have cancelled all events since March 2020. They were replaced with pedestrian days, roaming musicians, temporary public art, and an increase in outdoor dining. Interestingly, summer retail and restaurant sales remained steady and even increased for some businesses. Pedestrian days on Main Street thrived and became a local favorite.  It is too early to tell if this is a lasting trend, but we learned a valuable lesson: Park City may not be as dependent upon events as we once thought.

Council Member Michele Randall, St. George: Many things have become apparent to those who work for the City of St. George that were never a thought in early March.

1. We realized that our physical spaces (buildings) are poorly configured to interact with the public in the COVID era. The longer the pandemic goes on the more glaring this becomes.
2. We need better solutions for data security for employees who work from home. It is hard to protect sensitive data out of the office. Many of our employees still work from home.
3. Training has become harder. In-person instruction is almost always superior to videos or written instructions. Each department within our city has regular training and we are missing the physical gathering for trainings.
St. George has a motto… “The Brighter Side.” Hopefully 2021 will bring a much brighter year.

Council Member Tasha Lowery, Draper: The impact of COVID-19 on Draper was immediate and multifaceted. We saw some businesses struggle almost immediately, especially those dependent on walk-in foot traffic, while others, especially our outdoor and online retailers flourished. We believed that increased testing in our community was key to gathering more data, tracking the virus, and helping understand how businesses and residents could return safely back to work. We led as a proactive city as one of the first to offer rapid antibody and saliva testing to interested residents. The saliva testing came from Spectrum Solutions, which is a Draper-based company that became the testing provider for the MLB, NHL, and the PGA.

The most dramatic shift was the increase in usage of our trail systems. We had more than double the number of users from 2019 to 2020 in our Corner Canyon, approximately a 142% increase. Some of our trailheads saw upwards of 200,000 users-more than some of our state parks. While we absolutely love to see residents and neighbors getting outside in the open space, such a dramatic increase all at once brought challenges, from parking to traffic to user conflicts. We tried to address these issues by expanding access, building more trailheads, separating user groups when possible, and most recently, voting to build three brand new hiking-only trails.

The Draper community is active, involved, and close knit. This was a wonderful blessing in looking out for each other and caring for each other, but it also likely contributed to a brief period when we became a COVID-19 hot spot, experiencing a sudden and rapid rise in cases, particularly in our youth. We worked in partnership with our education community, our Mayor’s Youth Council, and our football team to promote positive educational messages to stop the spread, wear face coverings, and practice distancing. This onboarding, all-in-it-together approach was incredibly effective and within weeks the numbers returned to acceptable levels.

COVID-19 will remain a part of our lives into the foreseeable future. We are all finding new ways to adjust, work together, and find success.  At the end of the day, we all want our local businesses to thrive, our residents to be happy and healthy, our schools open, and our communities warm, welcoming, and vibrant. Draper is resilient and we are working diligently each day to find flexible and creative solutions.