Energy & Environment

Grand Canyon remains open while employees, local officials push for its closure

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Grand Canyon National Park is staying open amid the coronavirus outbreak despite a push by both National Park Service (NPS) employees and local officials for its closure, documents obtained by The Hill show.  

Health experts and parks advocates have warned that recent crowding at national parks could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus, threatening the public and parks employees, and emails sent last week show growing concern among many at one of the country’s most popular parks. 

An employee of the Grand Canyon’s emergency medical services (EMS) branch said in a March 25 email to other staff members that the park “has closure support from the [Grand Canyon] Superintendent, Regional Director, and NPS Director as well as the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, the Navajo Nation, Tusayan Chamber of Commerce, and the Tusayan Fire Department.”

The email, which was obtained by The Hill, also said that the park’s incident management team was continuing to work on support documentation to close the park to the public and that it has sent documentation to both the NPS and the Interior Department. 

It said the documentation was under review and that it includes “objective data and facts regarding critical operational limitations (i.e., public health, wastewater treatment, EMS staffing, etc.).”

The NPS declined to comment on the email’s authenticity but said in a statement that “no decision has been made by the National Park Service about the full closure of Grand Canyon National Park at this time.”

The agency also stressed that the park “has made significant changes to operations” to implement guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as state and local guidance. 

“Discussions and evaluations of park conditions and operations remain ongoing, using the decision factors the NPS has been consistently applying to all operations,” the NPS said. “Currently, the NPS is working within the guidance of the Arizona Department of Health Services and the CDC. It is our understanding that state guidance has not changed and the Arizona Department of Health Services has not asked for any additional park modifications or closures.”

As of Monday, the Grand Canyon was open to visitors, albeit with limits on access to facilities and programs. 

Local officials have also tried to push federal officials to close the park. 

“We are writing with extreme concern for any decision to keep the Grand Canyon National Park open in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Coconino County, Ariz., Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Elizabeth Archuleta and Chief Health Officer Thomas Pristow wrote in a letter to Grand Canyon Acting Superintendent Mary Risser on March 27. 

“Our County Health and Human Services department is advising all residents and tourists to practice social distancing and implement appropriate public health measures to help contain and mitigate the transmission of COVID-19. We encourage our federal partners to model that same behavior for the public health of all in the county,” they added. 

The Board of Supervisors followed up with a statement last week, saying, “Keeping the park open and allowing travelers from all over the world to come here and risk spreading COVID-19 is an unnecessary risk.”

Among the voices calling for the closure is House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) 

“Why expose both the public and the workforce of the park to the situation of this virus?” said Grijalva, whose committee oversees national parks. “You’re putting their health in danger and I think it needs to be closed.”

“We shouldn’t play around,” he told The Hill on Monday. “There has to be a uniform policy … and that obviously includes the Grand Canyon.” 

Multiple other national parks have closed amid fears of spreading the virus, and experts have warned that large crowds could make the situation worse.  

“People want to be able to get out and exercise and have some fresh air, but when they congregate together it poses a risk of spreading the virus,” Matthew Freeman, an associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology at Emory University, recently told The Hill. 

The administration, however, seemingly invited people to visit the parks by waiving fees earlier this month. 

“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks,” Secretary David Bernhardt of the Interior Department, which oversees the NPS, said in a statement at the time. 

In Arizona, where the Grand Canyon is located, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) issued an order on Monday directing state residents to stay at home until the end of April.

Meanwhile, last week, Wendy Smith-Reeve, the then-director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, abruptly resigned, citing a disagreement with how Ducey had structured the state’s response to the pandemic.

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