A pandemic and an insurrection, protests and police, and the Rose Bowl

Two dates, Jan. 6 and May 4, delineate the two dominant news stories of 2021 in Utah and the United States.

On one date, something historic and horrible happened, and people in power spent the following months trying to downplay it. On the other, something wonderful didn’t happen, and people in power — sometimes the same people — tried to pretend that it did.

Those two stories — the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol that attempted to upend democracy with authoritarian violence and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic along with efforts to wish it away — sometimes intertwined and frequently colored whatever happened during the other 363 days of 2021.

The insurrection, and after

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). A small crowd of Trump protesters gather at the capitol with signs, flags and guns on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.

The mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 did so — according to what some of them testified in court after the fact — because they believed the lie that then-President Donald Trump told them that day: That his supporters should “fight like hell” against the election results. The mob, some of whom were from Utah, eventually subsided, and Congress certified President-elect Joe Biden’s win — though Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens voted to oppose certification of Pennsylvania electors’ votes.

After Biden’s inauguration, much of Utah’s delegation downplayed the insurrection. When an anti-Trump conservative group, the Republican Accountability Project, issued a “democracy report card” of members of Congress, Stewart and Owens were given “F” ratings; Sen. Mike Lee got a “D minus,” and Rep. Blake Moore got a “D.” Rep. John Curtis received a barely satisfactory “B minus.”

Utah’s star pupil was Sen. Mitt Romney, who earned an “A” from the group — largely because he supported an independent commission to investigate the attack, and because he was one of seven Republican senators (out of 50) who voted to find Trump guilty in his second impeachment trial.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which usually stays above the political fray, weighed in. In an Easter Sunday talk during General Conference, Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, said that there’s nothing in church doctrine that says “a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate.” Oaks, in an analysis of the U.S. Constitution, also said that giving power to the people rather than a sovereign “does not mean that mobs or other groups of people can intervene to intimidate or force government action” — a comment some interpreted as repudiation of the Jan. 6 attacks.

At the state level, Republican lawmakers pushed for so-called audits of the 2020 election — similar to the roundly criticized farce in Arizona. In December, an interim committee directed the Legislature’s auditors to look into election issues. The move was castigated by Utah Democrats and drew a spirited defense of Utah’s elections by the Republican who runs them, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson. Utah House Majority Leader Mike Schultz reacted by accusing Democrats of waging “a political battle over something as sacred as our democratic process.”

Critics noted that Schultz and his GOP colleagues turned a part of the democratic process, the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts, into a political battle. The Legislature rejected maps created by a voter-approved nonpartisan commission, in favor of gerrymandered maps whose congressional districts split Democratic-heavy Salt Lake County four ways.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carson Jorgensen, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, center, was surrounded by members of the public reacting in agreement to public comment by raising their hands in solidarity against the newly drawn redistricting maps Nov. 8, 2021. The public got to respond on Monday to the Utah Legislature’s Redistricting Committee’s only public hearing for the map proposals.

Marc Elias, founder of the progressive voting-rights group Democracy Docket, excoriated the Utah Legislature’s dismissal of the commission’s redistricting work, saying on MSNBC: “Never engage in any political process that requires Republican politicians to act in good faith.”

One of 2021′s election success stories was the use of ranked choice voting in 23 cities’ municipal races, where voters could mark their alternate choices to their preferred candidate. The process affected a few races and created drama in Sandy’s mayoral race but otherwise was a hit with voters. Is that why some of the people who cried “fraud” have started a petition drive to kill it and other turnout-growing policies? Notably, Sandy and West Valley City elected their first-ever female mayors.

The pandemic grinds on

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dani Al-Mansouri, 21, of Herriman, who is 31 weeks pregnant with her first child, waits the 15-minutes required after getting her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at the Mountain America Exposition Center in Sandy on Friday, April 30, 2021.

There were no parades or fireworks to mark the milestone on May 4: The day the COVID-19 pandemic officially ended in Utah.

“Officially” because that’s when state health officials, following the limits the Legislature set out in its pandemic “endgame” bill, were required to lift the last statewide public health rules — such as masking requirements and limits on indoor gatherings — meant to tamp down the spread of the coronavirus.

By May 4, more than 2.2 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Utah. That, along with reductions in infection rates and the number of filled beds in intensive care units, was enough by the Legislature’s lights to declare the pandemic over.

The coronavirus paid no attention to politics or statistics. The virus kept on doing what a virus does: Reproducing and spreading. It came up with new versions of itself — the delta and omicron variants — to do those jobs better, spreading to people who got vaccinated but mostly to those who had refused the jab.

The low infection rates and hospitalization statistics of May were replaced with a fall surge in that started in September and, according to one health analyst, persisted longer than the peak of late 2020.

The frustrating part, doctors said repeatedly, is that the 2021 surge came even though we could get the vaccine. First distributed to a handful of health care workers in mid-December 2020 and to people over 75 and those living in assisted living facilities, the three federally approved vaccine brands were available to all Utah adults by March — while the Pfizer version was approved for children 12 and up by May, and to kids 5 and older in November.

Utah officials initially worried the state wasn’t getting its fair share of vaccines as people made appointments at mass vaccination sites — leading to 70% of Salt Lake County teachers getting their first shots by February.

Within months, supply wasn’t a problem, but a lack of demand was. Gov. Spencer Cox expressed excitement at the idea of cash incentives, but the Legislature shot that down. Leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged its members to get the shot, but the prod ultimately didn’t change the vaccination rates much.

In November, the Legislature handcuffed efforts to create vaccine mandates, requiring private employers to make exemptions for those with “sincerely held beliefs,” a category so broad that it rendered any mandate useless.

A couple of weeks after the state’s COVID-19 limits were lifted May 4, Dr. Angela Dunn — the state’s voice of reason during the pandemic — left her post as the state’s epidemiologist. The “endgame” bill didn’t directly inspire her to leave, Dunn told The Salt Lake Tribune in August, but “it’s hard for any public health practitioner to see that bill and not feel undermined in some way.”

Dunn took a job that gave her authority to go with her scientific advice: executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department.

One of Dunn’s first major actions was controversial: issuing a mask mandate for county schoolchildren. Under the “endgame” bill’s requirements, such an order is legal but could be overturned by the County Council — which is what happened Aug. 12, with a mob of anti-vaccine activists shouting at the Democrats on the Republican-led council and, when the vote went their way, singing a song from “Les Miserables.” (In a callback to Jan. 6, a protester waved a flag from the Three Percenters, a far-right militia group.)

Without mask mandates in most districts and with spotty efforts at contact tracing, case counts among children escalated when school resumed. The exception was Salt Lake City School District, which had lower infection rates than the county’s other districts — because the Salt Lake City Council Instituted a mask mandate for the district. Residents supported the mask rule, which the council in December extended to spring break 2022.

Throughout the year, despite the Legislature’s declaration of an “endgame,” Utahns continued to get sick, go to the hospital, and sometimes die — as COVID-19 claimed community figures, widened divisions within mourning families and delayed care for ill children.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) COVID-19 testing being done at a TestUtah site in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

The pandemic permeated other facets of life in Utah:

• By fall, the Utah Department of Health had outsourced most of its COVID-19 testing sites to a private contractor, TestUtah, even though its testing cost twice as much as having the government do it.

• Dr. Marc Harrison, the CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, became a powerful voice in defense of wearing face masks. Harrison, who has multiple myeloma (the same blood cancer Secretary of State Colin Powell had before he died from COVID-19 complications), told reporters at a July news conference with Gov. Cox that people there not wearing masks “could kill me.”

• The U.S. Department of Labor moved in October to revoke Utah’s state-run plan for enforcing workplace safety standards — because, the feds said, the state’s plan didn’t go far enough to protect workers in hospitals and other health care facilities against the coronavirus. The revocation process is ongoing.

• Utah’s state auditor criticized Uintah County in an October audit after a whistleblower’s report that county officials used federal COVID-19 relief funds to expand a tubing hill and give business grants to relatives of county commissioners. In December, a grand jury indicted former Olympic speedskater Allison Baver, from Taylorsville, on charges of fraud, accusing her of acquiring $10 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds by claiming she owned a movie production company with 430 employees — when, the indictment alleges, the company had none.

• Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who sponsored the “endgame” bill, resigned from his seat to take a job overseeing legislative affairs for the Utah Department of Health. Ray, a banker and businessman, has no public health experience outside of legislating about it.

• The Sundance Film Festival canceled in-person events in Utah and went all-virtual in 2021. Going online meant more people attended the festival’s screenings, and accessibility efforts (such as closed captioning) were baked into the presentation.

Won’t someone think of the children?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rebecca Olson of Highland, expresses her opposition to any possible future mask mandates in schools as she shakes her hands in quiet support of those speaking in opposition to masks to the Salt Lake County Council during a council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Some of the parents who raised a stink about mask rules also vented their anger at other aspects of education — from a children’s book about a transgender boy at a Murray elementary school to complaints sent to Canyons School District administrators about nine titles conservatives found offensive.

In June, the Utah State Board of Education approved new standards on what could be taught about ethnicity and inclusion. Following the Legislature’s concerns about “critical race theory” (a concept that has never been taught in K-12), the board voted to ban class materials that would teach that one race is “inherently superior or inferior,” or that one’s moral character is influenced by race. John Arthur, the 2021 Utah Teacher of the Year, commented that “somehow, people found a way to spoil these beautiful words like ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity.’”

But who needs protesters when the state education board has Natalie Cline? Cline, a far-right Republican elected the first year the board’s elections became partisan, was a one-woman outrage machine. She called LGBTQ students “gender confused,” referring to the Black Lives Matter movement as “indoctrination,” and accused a Riverton middle-school teacher of advocating communism. Board members reprimanded Cline for her statements, but the board does not have the authority to remove her.

For anyone who questioned whether racism in Utah schools was a problem, the sad story of Izzy Tichenor put such denials to rest. Tichenor, a 10-year-old Black girl on the autism spectrum, died by suicide Nov. 6 — after she had been bullied at her North Salt Lake elementary school, her mother said, and officials at the Davis School District ignored her mother’s complaints. The district was already reeling from a U.S. Department of Justice report that criticized the mishandling of reports of racial harassment.

A discovery near Panguitch — of at least 12 bodies of Paiute children in unmarked graves, at the site of an Indigenous boarding school they were forced to attend — was a harrowing reminder that racism in schools isn’t a recent phenomenon. The struggle didn’t start in 2021 and isn’t ending there.

Police problems

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill rules that a West Valley City sergeant was legally justified when he shot and killed a handcuffed Michael Chad Breinholt inside a police station in 2019 during a press announcement where he went over body camera video on Thursday, July 22, 2021, at the district attorney’s office.

A grim statistic to close out 2021: Utah tied its record, reached in 2018 and 2020, for the number of police shootings, at 30. The 30th shooting happened Dec. 16 in Clinton.

The Tribune’s Jessica Miller and Paighten Harkins, in collaboration with the PBS documentary series “Frontline,” spent the year investigating police shootings in Utah, creating an extensive database of police-involved shootings. They used this information for a film, “Shots Fired,” now available online.

The reporting team also wrote a series of related stories: Analyzing the disproportionate use of deadly force used against people of color; telling the human story of one victim’s grieving siblings; listing a prosecutor’s suggestions to reform use-of-force laws; examining the video of a shooting within the West Valley City police’s offices; and gauging the role fear plays in police training.

Police problems, campus edition

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kaytriauna Flint poses for a photograph in her attorney’s office, Dec. 13, 2021. Flint was sexually assaulted in 2019 when she was a student at Utah State University.

At Brigham Young University, a cache of emails, released after years of litigation, showed a BYU police lieutenant improperly accessed reports from Provo police about sexual assault cases involving students — and shared that information with BYU’s Honor Code Office, which has the authority to expel students who violate rules of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A BYU police official said in 2016 that the department was not “out there digging up dirt on students and shipping it to the Honor Code Office,” though the documents showed that’s exactly what was going on.

At the University of Utah, Police Chief Rodney Chatham resigned in July after barely a year on the job. Chatham spent about half that time on administrative leave, because of accusations — for which he was cleared — that he said were in retaliation for his efforts to reform the department after its failures in the 2018 death of student-athlete Lauren McCluskey. Marlon Lynch, the U.’s first-ever chief safety officer, left in February after a year. And the U.’s president, Ruth Watkins, whose three-year tenure was largely defined by the school’s mishandling of the McCluskey case, resigned before spring semester, to take a job with a national education nonprofit.

Up north at Utah State University, the police chief, Earl Morris, resigned in December after comments he made to members of the Aggies football team became public. In the comments (a recording of which The Tribune obtained), Morris warned players that young Latter-day Saint women “may have sex with you” but then tell their church leaders that it was nonconsensual.

Utah’s housing troubles

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah student Kambry Woodbury has experienced her fair share of different types of renter’s fees that landlords are charging for housing. Though she was able to find a good situation now with a landlord in the Avenues, application fees are getting more expensive and some companies are charging renters for “administrative” and “lease initiation” fees that are never explained or made refundable.

The cost of buying a house in Utah keeps rocketing up, while availability remains frustratingly more difficult.

In late October, the median price of house was around $550,000 in Salt Lake County, $500,000 in Utah County and $400,000 in Weber County, staying steady with the higher-than-usual summer averages. Experts estimate that between 15% and 20% of home sales on the Wasatch Front are paid in cash — sometimes $100,000 or more over initial asking prices.

The rate of home sales, meanwhile, dropped 17.2% along the Wasatch Front, an indication that many potential buyers are getting priced out of the market.

New apartment complexes keep springing up in Salt Lake, Utah, Weber and Davis counties — part of a massive building boom that will see 30,000-plus new rentals in the near future. It’s still not enough to fulfill the demand for housing, so vacancy rates remain below 5%, and rents will be whatever the market will bear, leaving few affordable units for the state’s average wage earners.

Get used to it. Experts at the University of Utah studied real estate data and construction trends, and found that the current market isn’t a bubble — and the imbalances in the residential market will stick around for the next year or more.

Water, or the lack of it

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The setting sun lights Antelope Island in the distance from the receding shore of the Great Salt Lake on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.

The Great Salt Lake dropped to the lowest level on record — 4,191.3 feet above sea level — on July 23. The lake’s shrinking led boaters to take their craft out of the marina and threatened microbial habitats that feed the only life form that lives in the lake: brine shrimp. The drought, a lower-than-normal snowpack, and a hot summer were blamed for the reduced water level. The Tribune and AccuWeather altered their weather maps to show the lake’s actual size.

Lake Powell, in far southern Utah, also had a dry summer, recording a lower water level than any time since it formed in the 1960s — threatening power generation at Glen Canyon Dam. Even with that drop, plans to build a 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell to St. George stayed on track. But as Lake Powell shrank, something interesting happened: The Colorado River, which feeds the lake, started coming back to life.

Rainbow lights and ‘musket fire’

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Brigham Young University freshman Annie Richards watches others embrace as she and others sport various rainbow-colored items in support of Rainbow Day on the campus of BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

It’s always an interesting time to be LGBTQ at BYU.

On March 4, students engaged in a guerrilla art project, lighting up the “Y” on the mountain overlooking Provo in rainbow colors. On its Twitter account, BYU stressed the school did not authorize the lights, prompting one of the biggest “well, duh” reactions in the history of social media.

In April, a BYU faculty member used a reference from the Book of Mormon associated with the anti-Christ to attack a gay student in a Twitter exchange.

On Aug. 23, Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland issued a scathing message to faculty and students who would challenge the faith’s teachings. Holland urged BYU faculty and staff to unleash their intellectual “musket fire” to defend the church, particularly regarding the doctrine of “marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” but some choose to aim “‘friendly fire’ … and sometimes it isn’t friendly” at the school.

From a funeral to Pasadena

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham celebrates the win. The Utes defeated the Oregon Ducks to win the 2021 Pac12 Football Championship title at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Dec 3, 2021.

One of the greatest triumphs in Utah sports history was sparked, in part, by tragedy.

Early Sunday morning, Sept. 26, Aaron Lowe — a sophomore defensive back with the University of Utah football team — was shot and killed outside a postgame party in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood. The shooting, police later learned, followed an argument over a parking space.

“He was a light,” Taylor Randall, the U. president, said at Lowe’s funeral in Mesquite, Texas — a funeral attended by the entire football team.

Lowe wore the number 22, in honor of his high school friend, Ty Jordan, who wore the same number last season. Jordan died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot on Christmas night 2020, and Lowe was the first recipient of a scholarship named for Jordan. Coach Kyle Whittingham had the 22 number retired. Schools in the Pac-12 painted the hash marks on their fields’ 22-yard line red.

The Utes came home from Lowe’s funeral and proceeded to win eight of their next nine games — including the Pac-12 championship in Las Vegas, walloping a heavily favored Oregon team for the second time in 13 days — and securing the school’s first-ever berth in the Rose Bowl.

Whittingham dedicated the Pac-12 championship win to Jordan and Lowe. “I’m positive they were there here with us,” the coach said after the game.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utes pause to honor Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe between 3rd and 4th quarters, in PAC-12 action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon Ducks. At Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

Other moments in Utah sports in 2021:

• The BYU Cougars football team went 10-2 this season, then narrowly lost in the Independence Bowl to University of Alabama-Birmingham. The school’s biggest win was off the field: getting a slot in the Big 12 Conference, one of the Power 5, starting in 2023.

• The Utah State Aggies finished its season 10-3, winning the Mountain West Conference and beating Oregon State in the first-ever Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. Really. That’s what they call it.

• The Utah Jazz had the best record in the West at the end of the 2020-21 regular season but got knocked out in the second round of the NBA playoffs by the Los Angeles Clippers. So far in the 2021-22 season (as of Dec. 18), the Jazz have amassed a 20-9 record.

• Real Salt Lake endured uneven play and off-field turmoil — still without an owner, and coach Freddy Juarez quitting in August to be an assistant coach in Seattle. In November, the claret-and-cobalt was golden: A miracle goal in the last regular-season game to make the playoffs, then two road wins to reach the Western Conference final (where RSL lost to Portland).

Odds and ends

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paris Hilton recounts her experiences as a teenager at Provo Canyon School during a hearing on SB-127 to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Standing Committee in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Regulating a ‘troubled’ industry • In March, Cox signed into law more regulations to govern Utah’s “troubled teen” industry, the nearly 100 youth residential treatment centers in the state. The bill was prompted by reporting from The Tribune about the abuse, mistreatment and chemical sedation at many Utah facilities, and was bolstered by legislative testimony from former residents — led by socialite and reality star Paris Hilton.

Monuments restored • Biden signed a proclamation in October to restore 2 million acres of land to two national monuments in Utah: Grand Staircase-Escalante, created during the Clinton administration, and Bears Ears, which was created during the final months of President Barack Obama’s second term. Both had been cut in size drastically by Trump.

Go Utah Tech! • Get used to a new name among Utah colleges: Utah Tech University. Utah lawmakers in November gave final approval for that name to replace the old one, Dixie State University, for the St. George-based school starting next July. The name, with connotations of the antebellum South and the shadow of slavery, had been a flashpoint of debate for years.

Church and welfare state • How did the state of Utah save $75 million on welfare? According to a ProPublica investigation, it did it by mixing church and state, entangling the state of Utah’s benefits with the charity efforts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) First lady Jill Biden waves goodbye to teachers at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.

The first lady visits • Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the president, made a whirlwind three-hour visit to Salt Lake City’s west side on May 5. She met students at Glendale Middle School, where she was serenaded by a ukulele choir. Then she visited a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Jordan Park.

An influencer is killed • The August disappearance of Gabby Petito, a social-media influencer posting her cross-country adventures on YouTube, drew national attention. Her last posts were of Utah locations, and police in Moab once pulled Petito and boyfriend Brian Laundrie over as they were having a domestic dispute. Petito’s strangled body was found in September in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park; Laundrie, the prime suspect, died by a self-inflicted gunshot in a Florida nature preserve.

The equality gap • Utah hit a dubious milestone for the fourth year in a row: The worst state for women’s equality, according to the website WalletHub. Utah women continue to lag behind other states’ women in the gender wage gap, political representation, education and top jobs.

The ‘Housewives’ return • The opulently rich women on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” returned for a second season in September. The biggest drama in the reality series centered on the legal troubles of Jen Shah, who was, along with her business partner, accused by federal prosecutors in March of defrauding hundreds of clients in an online business scheme.

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