March 17, 2021 - 11:57 pm
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Grand Canyon National Park officials tentatively plan to reopen the park’s eastern entrance in late May, but there’s sentiment in a small northern Arizona city that depends on tourism that sooner would be better.
“Our sales tax for this year is down nearly 30% from last year,” Page city manager Darren Coldwell told the Arizona Daily Sun. “Our Horseshoe Bend visitation is down 80%. So when we say that our numbers dropped off the face of the earth, they really did.”
The Grand Canyon’s eastern entrance and the highway leading to it, State Route 64, were closed last spring as a courtesy to the neighboring Navajo Nation, which was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
The tribe’s vast reservation in the Four Corners region has reported nearly 30,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 1,219 deaths as of Tuesday, when only two new cases and one additional death were reported.
A nightly curfew to help curb spread of the coronavirus remains in effect on the reservation but slowing of the outbreak has prompted the Navajo Nation to begin a partial reopening of some businesses and other facilities. Two of the tribe’s four casinos will reopen Friday.
Navajo Nation roads remain closed to visitors, but the Navajo Nation Council is considering a bill to rescind those closures — which don’t affect the highway into the park.
Page tourism hurting
Meanwhile, Page Mayor Bill Diak worries the highway’s continued closure will do lasting damage to the city’s economy and small businesses.
For years, Diak said Page has marketed itself as part of a loop route for tourists visiting national parks and monuments in the Southwest.
But with State Route 64 closed, the loop route has been disrupted.
“People come out of Vegas, and they come in one way through I-40, and do the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, continue on up to do Page, Lake Powell, or they go on over to Monument Valley, come back in the other way,” Diak said. “Both Utah and Arizona have marketed that for years, and then finally it has taken hold over the last three years. Now we’re going to lose all that.”
For now, many campsites at the Page-Lake Powell Campground sit empty.
“Starting from spring break in March, for the last five or six years, our campground has been sold out every single weekend all the way into Thanksgiving,” said Ron Colby, who manages the campground and a nearby bait shop.
Colby said business has been down 78% compared to 2019. There were a few weeks last summer that approached normal occupancy levels, but that eventually dropped off.
Diak and Coldwell, the city manager, have been lobbying park officials to reopen the highway.
Park spokesperson Joelle Baird said Superintendent Edward Keable is considering reopening the eastern entrance on May 21, before Memorial Day weekend.
Baird said the final decision will be made only after careful consideration and consulting with tribal leaders.
Other factors that must be weighed include the park staffing to reopen the entrance and the possibility of changes in the pandemic, Baird said.
The stretch of State Route 64 through the Navajo Nation outside of the park is a popular spot for roadside vendors looking to capitalize on tourist traffic, but those services remain prohibited by the tribe’s public health orders.
Jared Touchin, a spokesman for tribal President Jonathan Nez, said those restrictions could be revisited soon if the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the reservation continue to drop.