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Calls mount to close Grand Canyon after resident gets virus

FILE - This Oct. 22, 2012, file photo, shows a view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park in Ariz. Calls are mounting for the federal government to close Grand Canyon National Park after a resident of the iconic park tested positive for the coronavirus and has been in isolation. Members of Congress and city, county and tribal officials have urged the Interior Department to approve a request from the park to close. The Park Service has been deciding whether to shut down individual sites on a park-by-park basis, in consultation with state and local health officials. Neither the Interior Department nor the Park Service immediately responded to requests Tuesday, March 31, 2020, on the status of the Grand Canyon's request. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Calls mounted Tuesday for the federal government to close Grand Canyon National Park after the popular tourist destination saw its first case of the coronavirus in a hospitality worker.

The man who tested positive for COVID-19 lived at a dorm within the park and worked at one of the lodges run by a park concessionaire, said Glen White, a spokesman for park concessionaire Delaware North. The man has been in isolation for several days.

Members of Congress and city, county and tribal officials have urged the federal government to approve a request from the park to close amid concerns that social distancing can’t be maintained.

“We understand that closing an iconic destination like the Grand Canyon is not an easy decision, but we implore you to do everything in your power to prioritize public health and not interfere with locally informed decisions to close parks where appropriate,” members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources wrote to the Interior Department.

The Navajo Nation also renewed a request for the park to close. Anyone headed to the park’s East Rim must drive through the tribe’s reservation, which has seen five deaths and nearly 150 coronavirus cases.

The Grand Canyon encompasses more than 1,900 square miles (4,920 square kilometers). Most visitors go to the South Rim where more than 2,000 people live year-round. Most residents are employees of the National Park Service or park concessionaires and their families.

The Park Service said it has been consulting with state and local health officials in deciding whether to shut down individual parks. No decision had been made regarding the Grand Canyon as of late Tuesday, the agency said.

Few services remain for Grand Canyon visitors who can enter at no charge. The park has closed off its most popular hiking trails and shut down shuttle buses, restaurants, lodges, campgrounds and visitor centers. Restrooms remain open.

The grocery store is open only four hours a day. A small clinic that could could be overwhelmed if the coronavirus spreads is no longer taking walk-ins.

White said the man who tested positive worked only one day during the past three weeks but at a time before guest services were suspended at Yavapai Lodge. The lodge and the dorm were being cleaned Tuesday, and any employees who came into contact with the man were offered temporary housing elsewhere, White said.

Across the National Park Service, seven employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the agency said. The figure includes only those who work for the agency and not for park concessionaires or other employers. The Park Service said it would not release the names of the parks to protect the employees’ privacy.

Several of the country’s most popular national parks have closed, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier, Arches and Canyonlands. Some of those calls were made at the request of governors and health officials in those states.

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey has listed parks, golf courses and other outdoor recreation areas as essential. A spokesman did not respond to a message Tuesday asking whether the governor would support closing the Grand Canyon.

The governing body of Tusayan, a town outside the Grand Canyon’s South Rim entrance, hasn’t taken a stance. But its mayor, Craig Sanderson, said he’d rather the park stay open.

“I don’t want to see our public lands restricted from people who want to stay safe, want to do everything they can for their well-being, and that includes social separation and yet still enjoying our national parks,” Sanderson said.

The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, an organization representing current and former park employees, has called on Interior to close all parks to protect staffers who are dealing with visitors.

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Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this story.

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