ST. GEORGE — As outdoor recreation areas in Garfield County, including Bryce Canyon National Park, continue to reopen following closures due to the coronavirus, and restrictions begin to slowly loosen, tourism businesses are starting to see a glimmer of hope for their survival.
The rural Utah county, which relies heavily on a tourism economy, has experienced a huge financial impact with many of their hotels, restaurants and tour companies operating at well-below normal.
In March, prior to the closure of Bryce Canyon National Park, Ruby’s Inn was operating at just 5%, and many smaller hotels in the area had seen nearly all of their reservations through May and beyond canceled.
It was a grim outlook for an industry that primarily survives on income that is earned in the spring through fall.
Ruby’s Inn hotel general manager Lance Syrett said in a previous St. George News report that tourism in Garfield County is kind of like farming.
“You’ve got a few months to put enough hay in the barn to make it through the winter,” Syrett said.
Now, with the state lowering the COVID-19 threat level from red to orange and stringent health mandates beginning to relax somewhat, Syrett said he feels like they can start gaining some ground rather than continually losing it.
“Before, it felt like we had no foundation to stand on. It was like quicksand,” Syrett said. “Now, things are on the way up, slowly but surely.”
Bryce Canyon National Park, the county’s biggest tourism draw, reopened with limited services Wednesday helping to add some optimism to what for months has been an uncertain outlook for Ruby’s Inn as well as other tourism businesses in the area.
“Bryce Canyon is one of the most beautiful parks in the national park system,” Syrett said. “Nobody is under the illusion that people come to Ruby’s just to come to Ruby’s.”
According to a press release posted on the park’s website, Bryce Canyon National Park, under the guidance of the National Park Service along with federal, state and local public health authorities, is taking a phased approach to reopening access to recreational areas.
Access is currently open in the following areas:
- The main park road and all viewpoints to Rainbow Point.
- Restrooms at Sunset Point (only restrooms open within the park).
- Trails within the Bryce Amphitheater area.
With public health in mind, the park visitor center and fee booths, park campgrounds, Mossy Cave parking and trail area, backcountry trails including the Under the Rim trail and campsites, and park concessions facilities remain closed.
Similarly, while Ruby’s Inn continues to monitor the COVID-19 situation, they are also opening access to some of their recreation offerings including horseback riding tours, guided ATV tours and mountain bike rentals.
Ruby’s Inn’s main dining restaurant, the Cowboy’s Buffet and Steak Room, is also open though the buffet is still closed. Other dining facilities such as the Bryce Canyon Diner and Ebenezer’s Barn and Grill remain closed for the time being, Syrett said.
Still, while things are beginning to look up, Garfield County business owners like Tyson Brinkerhoff, who along with other family members owns Bryce Canyon Inn, Bryce Canyon Coffee Company and The Pizza Place in Tropic, know the year ahead of them is crucial for their survival.
“If we can get to 50% of normal, I think we will be very fortunate,” Brinkerhoff said.
Currently, Bryce Canyon Inn, which comprises several individual cabin units, is not anywhere near that percentage of operation, Brinkerhoff said, neither are the on-property pizza place or coffee shop.
Bryce Canyon Inn is open and the individual cabins make it an ideal place to stay at least 6 feet from others, Brinkerhoff said. The Pizza Place and Bryce Canyon Coffee Shop are open with takeout options and some outdoor seating available.
And while he believes that having Bryce Canyon and other recreation areas open will help, Brinkerhoff remains cautious about the future.
“We hope to make it through one whole year,” he said. “I just hope we don’t go backwards.”
Because of the many uncertainties that still surround the coronavirus, both Syrett and Brinkerhoff recognize that moving forward is going to mean a significant shift in who is coming to the area to visit.
In a typical year during the month of May, nearly 70% of all Ruby’s Inn guests are international, Syrett said. Both travel restrictions and fear regarding travel safety will likely mean that businesses will have to rely on domestic travelers to fill their rooms.
“We hope we get the intermountain west to travel here,” Brinkerhoff said. “We’re going to see a lot more people who hopefully choose to do a little vacation in their backyards. You can social distance pretty darn good here.”
And now is the time to do it.
Syrett said the combination of low hotel rates across the county and low crowds make it an ideal time to visit the area, particularly for Utahns and residents of nearby states who have never been to Bryce Canyon.
The longtime hotel general manager and state tourism leader said he typically talks to many international visitors who have been to the park multiple times, while there are still people in Utah, even in Southern Utah, who have never seen Bryce.
“This is the year to see Bryce,” Syrett said.
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