/Theyre holding the mail hostage: Town in vote-by-mail Utah lost its only post office

Theyre holding the mail hostage: Town in vote-by-mail Utah lost its only post office

ST. GEORGE, UTAH – In the final month before the 2020 U.S. general election, the 400-or-so residents of a Utah town just outside Capitol Reef National Park are preparing to mail their ballots in, like so many others across the country.

The only problem?

They don’t have a post office.

On New Year’s Eve last year, the Torrey Post Office and former town hub shut its doors as the private owners couldn’t renegotiate their contract with the United States Postal Service, due to a multitude of factors, but mostly, debt. 

No post office means no home delivery, no mail pick up, no place to buy stamps and no place to send mail.

Since then, those living in Torrey have relied on the post office in Bicknell, eight miles away and a 20-minute drive round trip to get their mail. For some who live in the outskirts of Torrey and neighboring towns, it could take two or three times as long.

On top of that, residents have to make the drive to Bicknell at certain times since there are not enough post office boxes there for the residents of Torrey.

Bicknell has even fewer boxes than the former office in Torrey had, so while Bicknell’s lobby is open for post office boxes 24 hours a day, virtually no one in Torrey has a box there due to the short supply.

That means Torrey citizens have to pick up their mail at the window by 2:30 p.m. on weekdays and 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays. Torrey has one collection box, but the last collection time is also 2:30 p.m. and the only other option to Bicknell is Teasdale, an out-of-the-way stop much less popular for Torrey residents.

“They’re holding the mail hostage,” Torrey Mayor Scott Chesnut said. “I take time off work to get the mail. It does affect the working people.”

Residents of Torrey have to pick up and send mail at the Bicknell post office location, eight miles away.

The solution? Torrey must take out a loan to build their own post office. The townspeople are even going to come together and paint it themselves. All the United States Postal Service has to do is supply a postal worker.

Even as construction began on Monday, the new post office will not be complete until at least Nov. 1, and won’t be fully functional until Nov. 14.

Facing the upcoming election, citizens, clerks and postal workers in Utah are gearing up for a mass of mail-in ballots in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Do you know the candidates?: Here’s a 2020 voter guide for St. George and southwest Utah

The Utah Legislature attempted to help rural Utahns with a bill passed in late August asking rural counties to work with their postmaster closely and add ballot drop boxes.

Even so, some rural Utahns and county clerks felt this was a good try, but ultimately wasn’t enough.

“The Wasatch Front doesn’t understand rural,” said Utah Sen. Ralph Okerlund, a Republican who represents Torrey despite living more than an hour away in Monroe. “There are urban legislators who are more concerned about what’s going on in the big cities and not in a little place like Torrey.”

The rural necessity for the USPS

Torrey, Utah does not have a post office after the United States Postal Service closed the only location, now abandoned, for the gateway town to Capitol Reef National Park.

Okerlund said that while he understands both sides, he doesn’t think the USPS is fully grasping the vitalness of a post office in Torrey.

“The post office is trying to be as efficient as they can with funds, I understand that. But I don’t know if they understand how important rural post offices are,” Okerlund said. 

Rural America is a slice of the seemingly forlorn American dream. People living off the land, growing in tight-knit communities and feasting on devotion. Above all, there is an undeniable air of respect for the terrain, as unruly as it may be. 

Some stores, services and goods are sacrifices for the wide-open space. The most vital however might be pharmacies.

“The emphasis needs to be on making sure people have the ability to get their medication,” Okerlund said.

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Agreeing, Sam Van Wetter, Field Organizer of the advocacy organization Rural Utah Project said “The USPS is important to rural Utah because many folks make their livelihood through the mail,” noting paychecks, prescriptions, bills and packages come in the mail.

Without regular postal service, as Mayor Chesnut also noted, bills run past due and people’s lives are on the line in more ways than one.

The deal with the USPS

Torrey, Utah does not have a post office after the United States Postal Service closed the only location, now abandoned, for the gateway town to Capitol Reef National Park.

Last year, the United States Postal Service tried to find another retailer to house the local post office, but were unsuccessful as nobody had any extra room, Chesnut said.

The past year has been marked with hard negotiations as town members want their post office and meeting place back, but the USPS doesn’t want to lose money either.

Finally, a deal was struck this summer — the USPS would supply a postal worker if the town took on the financial burden of building the post office themselves. 

Bill Barrett, Torrey resident and organizer of the new non-profit “Friends of Torrey” specifically aimed at aiding the town with this post office situation, has been working with the town on finding a solution since the very beginning.

“I can’t understand why people can’t make this damn thing work,” he said. “The post office is a community center. It was a gathering point. It really was the one place where people went every day… We’re going to do all the painting ourselves. There are tons of people here that are happy to help.”

Torrey, Utah does not have a post office after the United States Postal Service closed the only location, now abandoned, for the gateway town to Capitol Reef National Park.

Where’s the town going to get the money? They’re going to take out a loan from a local bank and hire a local contractor, Hanky Panky Construction, LLC to build it.

On Monday, Chesnut said he’s glad it’s getting going but is ultimately unsatisfied with the deal with the USPS.

“It’s a bandaid,” he said. “It’s either that or we go to Bicknell forever.”

When asked for a statement on the situation in Torrey, USPS spokesperson Floyd D. Wagoner wrote in an email, “The U.S. Postal Service is currently finalizing plans with Torrey, UT, officials that includes accommodation for the delivery of mail and packages to a permanent and secure location within the community. The USPS anticipates announcing the opening of this new location by the end of the year.”

Before the post office shut its doors in Torrey, there were 383 mailboxes managed inside.

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Last year, locals went about counting how many boxes were in each locality in Wayne County, and their data claims Torrey used to have most boxes in the county, second only to the county seat in Loa. However, the USPS was unable to verify this immediately.

While some plans and mockups for the new Torrey Post Office are still in the air and not yet released to the public, Barrett and Chesnut are excited for the new building and are ready to have this vital building for their community back.

That is, not until after the election.

The vote

Residents of Torrey have to pick up and send mail at the Bicknell post office location, eight miles away.

Even if they wanted to vote in-person, the nearest polling location and ballot drop-box for Torrey residents is at the county seat in Loa, 17 miles away from Torrey and 64 miles away from one of the furthest east towns in Wayne County, Hanksville. 

Where for some in urban areas might only take few minutes to vote and or only a few feet from their door, voting in-person is a potential two and a half hour round trip drive for some residents of Wayne County.

And, the only ballot dropbox in the county is also at the Wayne County Sixth District Court and Clerk’s Office also in Loa.

With that in mind, mail-in voting is the only option for some residents of Wayne County and other rural counties. 

But even while facing the drive and the limited time when the post office is open, locals and officials do not think the inconvenience will impact the election or turnout.

Ricky Hatch, the Weber County clerk and chair of the Utah Association of Counties said voters are expected to wade out some inconvenience.

“The challenge that I see for voters in Torrey is I’m wondering what they had to do before vote-by-mail. There’s some expectation for voters that they’re going to have to drive to a polling place and then they’re going to have to wait once they get there,” he said.

Hatch said he is not as concerned about this year’s election because Utah is a postmark state and has been a mail-in vote state for years. 

“In Utah, we’ve been doing vote by mail for a long time. We’re good at it. We’re in a great position. Fraud is virtually nonexistent,” he said.

Van Wetter also said the lack of the postal service in rural areas “will only change the election for us in that the folks who care about voting will use tools other than the USPS.”

Republican Rep. Stephen Handy, who co-authored the bill allowing for changes to be made to this election due to the pandemic, said now is the time to rebuild the reputation of the USPS.

“There has been a considerable amount of unnecessary damage done and concerns about the validity of the USPS,” he said. “The postal service has high integrity. This is not their first vote by mail rodeo.”

The bill

Torrey, Utah does not have a post office after the United States Postal Service closed the only location, now abandoned, for the gateway town to Capitol Reef National Park.

Handy’s bill in August called for county clerks to work with their local postmasters and put in more drop boxes where they could.

However, advocacy groups like the Rural Utah Project say that without enforcement, the bill offers little help to rural Utahns.

“It definitely seems like the bill was not written with rural voters in mind. It doesn’t really address the issues rural voters are dealing with, which is disheartening to see,” Rural Utah Project Deputy Director Drew Cooper said.

Hatch, who is also a member of the Utah County Clerk and Auditor Association, participated in crafting the bill passed in August on behalf of and with Utah county clerks.

“We’re ok with the bill, we’re not excited but we’re not upset,” Harch said. 

He felt as though the legislature had made some compromises when they could have helped county clerks more when it comes to this particular election.

“The clerks wanted to be able to mail out ballots 28 days before election day. That way if the postal service had slower service, this would help with that,” he said adding that the ballots have to be quarantined once received.

The clerks also wanted a three-week canvass, or official tally of votes after the election, instead of the standard two. Neither request was granted.

“We know rural Utah is different than the Wasatch Front,” Handy said. “We understand the extreme necessity of getting ballots out on time and getting them back on time.”

The national park

Capitol Reef National Park faces visitor center renovations and crowded parking lots in 2020.

When rural Utahns aren’t fretting about the election, there’s the other worrisome factor of this year — the economy.

Torrey is less than 10 miles away from Capitol Reef National Park, one of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks. 

A gateway town, Torrey is the entrance that funnels visitors from all over the world into the red canyons on national acclaim. As a consequence, the town relies heavily on the tourism economy to sustain its citizens and businesses. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism to all national parks has taken a significant hit this year as people have canceled much of their planned travel. Though some parks bounced back for a month or two, visitation is still a fraction of last year’s.

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Capitol Reef saw 1.23 million visitors last year. Even with over half a million visitors this year so far, that’s still only 70% of what the park and Torrey are used to.

“With a million and a half visitors a year, they all want to send a postcard home and they have to go to Bicknell now to do it,” Mayor Chesnut said. “We’re a gateway to a national park and everything. I’m very frustrated with what (the USPS) doing.”

Fewer visitors mean less money. End of story.

The key to a thriving tourism economy in gateway towns is getting people to come and stay. Stay in the hotels, eat in the restaurants, buy goods in the shops and yes, mail postcards, trinkets, gifts and extra luggage back home.

Torrey, Utah does not have a post office after the United States Postal Service closed the only location, now abandoned, for the gateway town to Capitol Reef National Park.

Without the post office, Torrey has missed out on countless opportunities to make more money because visitors don’t stay and mail.

And until the new one is finished, residents will continue to make the trek to Bicknell, longing for their community’s core — the post office.

K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter at @ksophiewill or email her at kswill@thespectrum.com.