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Coronavirus: Grand Canyon closes after Navajo Nation pleaded for weeks to stop tourists infecting them

National Parks Service and government criticised for weeks-long battle to protect Navajo community from Covid-19 with Grand Canyon closure

Gino Spocchia
Friday 03 April 2020 07:30 BST
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, right, had called on U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, left, to close the Grand Canyon park
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, right, had called on U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, left, to close the Grand Canyon park (AP)

The Grand Canyon has become the latest national park to shut after local officials backed the Navajo people’s call to suspend tourism in the canyon and halt the spread of coronavirus within its community.

The closure made the Grand Canyon the last major national park to shut during the coronavirus pandemic, despite the move being backed by county and tribal officials.

“The closure of the park took longer than it should’ve, but we’re glad it’s finally closed,” said Jonathan Nex, president of the Navajo Nation.

Visitors headed to the park’s East Rim must drive through the tribe’s reservation using a state highway.

Staff had begun the process of slowly shutting down visitor services, whilst the Navajo president had warned a complete closure was needed to stop the virus spreading among the rural population.

Tribals officials said on Wednesday the number of confirmed coronavirus cases had reached 214, with seven deaths. The nearest hospital is more than an hours’ drive from the Navajo Reservation.

When the interior secretary, David Bernhardt, announced on Wednesday that he had accepted the park’s request to close, some commented that the decision could have been made sooner.

In a letter addressed to Mr Bernhard on March 24, Mr Nez had written to the interior secretary asking for an emergency closure of the Grand Canyon, adding: “We simply cannot afford additional outbreaks among our Navajo people.”

A similar plea was made by Coconino County’s health officer, Thomas Pristow, who wrote to the National Parks Service director Mary Risser on March 25 expressing his concern about opening the Grand Canyon during the pandemic.

Tourists were still able to visit the Grand Canyon on Tuesday, when the National Parks Service said it was keeping the park open, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The National Parks Service reportedly denied receiving a request from local health officials asking for closure of the Grand Canyon, despite Mr Pristow’s letter.

Kevin Dahl, of the National Parks Conservation Association in Arizona, said the Interior Department “must make it easier for park managers to make these common-sense decisions that can save lives”.

At the same time, the Zion National Park in Utah remained open on Wednesday despite multiple calls for closure. Shutdowns have so far come on a park-by-park basis as the Park Service reacts to the pandemic.

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