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Grand Canyon National Park visitation trickles during mounting calls for park closure
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Grand Canyon National Park visitation trickles during mounting calls for park closure

From the A collection of the Daily Sun's coronavirus coverage series

Isolation is a huge selling point for tourists on public lands, but it’s one of the harder things to find in the easily accessible parts of the Grand Canyon National Park.

However, on Friday, the crowds of thousands of daily travelers and families armed with smartphones, cameras and Grand Canyon souvenirs were gone as people tried to avoid spreading the coronavirus. At Maher Point, Javaris Turner, a traveler relocating from Pennsylvania to California, sat alone during his first visit to Arizona’s crown jewel. He said he made a point to pray for the coronavirus to end as the snowflakes fluttered on the canyon’s howling wind.

“I get to walk out here and pray in silence,” Turner said. “I have my nice set of headphones and I’m not even going to put them on yet — just be. I’m still in awe.”

But the diminishing crowds were not without reason, as calls for social distancing circulate around the country amid COVID-19 concerns.

Some national parks have barricaded their entrances to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The Grand Canyon has made entry to the park free to stop the exchange of money, but closed down access to shuttles, trails, campgrounds, river trips and visitor centers. Xanterra and Delaware North, which oversee hotels, restaurants and food in the Grand Canyon, have closed their operations due to COVID-19.

Coconino County has gone so far as to urge Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who oversees the park service, to close the park to visitors. Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva said he was joining tribes and the acting superintendent of the park in asking for the park’s closure. The city of Tusayan has also pushed for the park to close. An online petition has gathered over 1,750 public signatures to close the park as of Friday.

Liz Archuleta, chair of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, said the decision needed to be made for the health of the park’s visitors, residents and the rest of the county.

“It only takes one person to be a carrier of the virus to then infect others,” Archuleta said.

The Arizona health department has listed the spread of coronavirus throughout the community as “widespread” as cases reach 665 statewide with 13 deaths on Friday night. Coconino County said it has 55 confirmed cases and 324 negative tests with 136 tests pending. The county has had two deaths.

Around the country, there have been over 85,356 cases according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention with 1,246 deaths.

The county sent a letter Friday to the Grand Canyon’s Acting Superintendent Mary Risser further voicing the county’s “extreme concern” about the park's decision to stay open. The dip in visitors at the park didn’t change Archuleta’s perspective on the topic. She said she couldn’t understand why anyone would travel at a time where federal agencies have called for the public to stay inside, remain socially distant and avoid travel.

“I question why people are traveling at this time. People really need to heed our advice, and the advice that they’re hearing nationally,” Archuleta said. “This is serious.”

Dominic Ehrler and Collin Brown, two men traveling from Kentucky, said they had been to Las Vegas a day before the city had shut down casinos and restaurants to stop the spread of the coronavirus. When the men tried to travel back to Kentucky for work, their employers told them to stay away for two weeks. The men then said they started traveling instead of staying home.

The two have visited a few national parks in Utah. They were staying off main paths and cooking their own food to stay away from possible interactions with the public, Ehrler said.

“Whenever I’ve come here it's jam-packed with people. The whole parking lot up here was jam-packed. Could hardly find a parking spot,” Ehrler said, standing at Maher Point. “It’s definitely eerie.”

Some said they felt the park should stay open to service people’s desire to be in the outdoors amid social isolation. However, tourists Jamie Thompson and Kelsey Thompson from California said they were torn and understood the need to encourage safe practices, but also personally wanted to connect with nature.

“New York right now is getting bad,” Thompson said. “We definitely should keep the park closed, although I don’t want to because I want to [hike].”

Other local private, federal and tribal tourist destinations have closed their attractions from the public including Arizona Snowbowl, Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater National Monument, Walnut Canyon National Monument, Lake Powell Tribal Park, and Canyon de Chelly. The Grand Canyon National Park has taken steps to avoid people from gathering people in close proximity by closing trails, shuttles, and certain campgrounds.

Grand Canyon National Park could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

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