Tourists enter reopened Grand Canyon despite virus concerns

Tourists appeared ready to roam Grand Canyon National Park again after it partially reopened Friday, despite objections from Navajo officials and others that it could hurt efforts to control the coronavirus.

By 7:30 a.m. on May 15, more than two dozen people were enjoying some viewpoints along the South Rim.

Among them were friends Jack Covington from Texas and Judy Smith from Tucson, Arizona. They had planned their trip to the Grand Canyon a year ago since Covington had never seen it. They changed their plans and were visiting other places in Northern Arizona when they found out the park would be open.

“We figured we’d go for an adventure and we got lucky,” Smith said.

Park officials said the South Rim entrance will only open from 6-10 a.m. through Monday. Visitors have limited daytime access to viewpoints, picnic areas and some restrooms. The east entrance to the South Rim will remain closed. The North Rim remains closed.

“This initial reopening phase will increase access to our public lands in a responsible way by offering the main feature of the park for the public, the view of the canyon, while reducing the potential exposure of COVID-19 to our nearly 2,500 residents,” Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Ed Keable said.

Commercial services within the park remain closed. Visitors were told to bring food, water and hand sanitizer. There are no overnight accommodations available.

The National Park Service says it is working with federal, state and local public health authorities to closely monitor the pandemic and using a phased approach to increase access on a park-by-park basis.

However, officials on the hard-hit Navajo Nation, which stretches into northern Arizona, expressed disappointment at the reopening. There have been at least 3,632 positive cases and 127 deaths on the reservation, which also includes portions of New Mexico and Utah.

“We welcome the economic benefits that tourists bring, but we are also fearful of the potential negative impacts and had hoped that when the Grand Canyon closed on April 1, the park would remain closed until our positive COVID-19 numbers have flattened,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.

MORE: Navajo Nation leaders urge NPS to keep Grand Canyon closed

The Sierra Club also cited the Navajo Nation in its criticism of the reopening. Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter said it could result in a “patrolling and enforcement nightmare.”

“Cases in Coconino County where Grand Canyon’s South Rim is located are still rising,” Gitlin said. “The large population that lives at Grand Canyon and all nearby communities are put at risk by this move.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. 

Associated Press photographer Matt York contributed to this report.

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