The nearly yearlong ravages of the COVID-19 virus left little for Deseret News editors to debate when they rallied for their annual assessment of the year’s most important news stories.
But even though the COVID-19 public health crisis and its widespread impacts occupied an outsized portion of the 2020 news cycle, a pair of natural disasters, Utah’s role in a nationwide reckoning on racial justice issues, tragic crimes, an unusual election and the opening of a stunning, $4 billion airport project all made headlines in a year that’s been like no other.
The editors decided, however, that the top four Utah news stories of the year had to be specifically about the pandemic because of how it has affected nearly every aspect of life.
1. The depth and breadth of COVID-19
The numbers are chilling and unprecedented. This weekend, Johns Hopkins is reporting more than 80 million worldwide cases of COVID-19 and over 1.7 million deaths from the virus. In the U.S., the case count has surpassed 18.8 million and more than 330,000 people have lost their lives.
Grim records have been set in December, including the highest number of new cases in a single day in the U.S. of nearly 250,000 on Dec. 18 and the highest number of reported COVID-19 deaths in the country in a single day of 3,401.
Utah is among states with the highest incident rates, with a COVID-19 infection rate of over 62 per 100,000 residents as of Saturday, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Salt Lake County is also high on the list of U.S. counties when ranked by total number of cases. Its 103,313 cases put it in the top 20.
On the day after Christmas, Utah was reporting more than 264,000 confirmed cases, more than 10,500 hospitalizations and 1,212 deaths.
The first COVID-19 patient treated in Utah was reported in late February and, as the public health threat expanded, Utah government and community leaders faced the same struggles in navigating the crisis as the rest of the world.
In March, most Utah churches temporarily canceled services, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which canceled all meetings and activities worldwide — something the church hadn’t done since the flu pandemic of 1918-19. It resumed some weekly services in September, but with restrictions and some hybrid and virtual meetings.
Donning a mask to limit the airborne spread of the COVID-19 virus, a practice confirmed effective by health experts around the world, became a partisan issue in Utah and across the country.
“Public health officials seem to be doing everything they can to emphasize that this should not be a political issue and yet it has been politicized,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU.
Utah lagged behind most other states in instituting restrictions to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and lawmakers leveraged rule-making to draw lines around Gov. Gary Herbert’s administrative powers. The Democratic mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Mayor Jenny Wilson, respectively, were at loggerheads with Herbert, wanting to see more decisive action on behalf of the Utah city and county seeing the highest number of COVID-19 incidents. Other issues arose around no-bid contracts for COVID-19 testing and tracking efforts awarded amid emergency conditions and efforts to manage health care resources to keep up with rising case counts, a problem that’s been more about staffing than available beds.
But as the year closes out, some glimmer of a tide change is on the horizon as the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine go to front-line workers and plans are solidified to inoculate enough people to put this version of the virus at bay.
2. The pandemic economy
Restrictions and behavior changes wrought by COVID-19 led to thousands of Utah businesses and tens of thousands of Utah workers watching their incomes evaporate as local, state and federal leaders worked to find and disburse financial help to those in need. Congress pumped billions into the economy via a series of stimulus packages, including via direct cash payments to tax filers, and Utah saw over $5 billion worth of aid flow into the state.
Remote work became the new normal for those fortunate enough to have jobs that accommodate it, but pandemic-related shutdowns impacted low-wage workers much more severely than upper income earners.
Utah’s nation-leading economic diversity is providing the state with some level of immunity against the crushing fiscal impacts many other states have seen. While not a measure of overall economic health, state sales tax revenue numbers have only seen one month amid the pandemic, so far, that didn’t outperform last year’s revenues, and current unemployment figures, 4.3% at last check, are among the best in the nation.
Nevertheless, Utahns are still filing weekly unemployment claims at three to four times the average numbers seen in 2019, according to the Department of Workforce Services’ last update on Dec. 17. Many are facing the loss of extended benefits from a federal program that ended the day after Christmas.
Congress did pass another stimulus package last week as part of a $2.3 trillion spending bill the president has yet to sign. It would fund a temporary $300 per week federal unemployment benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans. There also is a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters, and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.
3. An embattled education system bends and nearly breaks
The novel coronavirus pandemic brought down the shutters on schools around the state and across the country last spring. Schools scrambled to figure out how to teach and engage with students online while canceling proms, school plays, prep games, playoffs, school trips, athletic camps, Lego robotics competitions and yearbook signings.
Schools tried to be creative with virtual or drive-by graduation ceremonies with car parades, fireworks and outdoor graduation walks.
Results from a national survey showed pandemic conditions had also cast a shadow on the Class of 2020’s collective outlook on college. Over 1⁄3 of new graduates surveyed said the crisis had impacted their plans to pay for college, 35% said they are less excited to go to college and among the college-bound, 58% expressed concerns that COVID-19 will impact classes and academic quality, while 53% expect it to affect dorm life.
And though educators and administrators had months to prepare for a revamped approach for fall that tried to balance student needs with best health practices, few could have predicted the explosion in Utah’s COVID-19 case volumes. While daily averages were in the few hundreds at the start of school, just weeks later those daily tallies were in the thousands.
The Salt Lake City School District suffered ridicule for being the sole system in the state to opt for an online-only reentry to instruction, and a measurable downside of the remote approach has been a spike in poor grades. It’s not clear what the academic impacts have been for the 40 Utah districts that pushed for in-person or mixed versions of the fall return to class that accommodated both in-person and remote learning, but dozens would eventually face intermittent shutdowns instigated by COVID-19 outbreaks among students and faculty.
Utah colleges are also seeing mixed results on different approaches that have included massive testing efforts.
Fall prep sports events were a spotty affair as COVID-19 outbreaks led to numerous cancellations and postponement for high school football games, and Gov. Gary Herbert’s November declaration of a statewide mask mandate put club teams and other extracurricular activities on the same footing as businesses. If teams could wear masks and social distance, they could practice just as members of dance studios and gymnastic centers were doing.
4. Rudy Gobert and the COVID-19 sports implosion
Just moments before a March 11 game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was set to begin, league officials first stopped the game, then postponed it and then announced the contest and the final two months of the NBA season were canceled until further notice.
The decision would prove monumentally portentous for the state of Utah, and the nation. A chain reaction was ignited when word broke that Jazz player Rudy Gobert’s test for the novel coronavirus came back positive. Gobert’s test and the league shutdown came on the same day the World Health Organization designated the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic — a turning point after which conditions got very real, and very serious.
March 12 saw a wave of historic COVID-19-related changes to the world of sports. including Major League Baseball canceling spring training; the National Hockey League suspending its season; and Major League Soccer announcing a 30-day season suspension.
Plus, the NCAA decided to cancel men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — meaning no March Madness. Utah State University had earned an automatic bid to the tournament and BYU — ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press poll that week — was projected to get a No. 6 seed in their first NCAA Tournament in five years. Their new coach was convinced that there was nothing that was going to stop them in that tournament “besides something otherworldly.”
It only got worse: The 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan were postponed until 2021; the Masters golf tournament was rescheduled for November; baseball was being played in empty stadiums; and the the NBA playoffs occurred in a Florida bubble.
And then college football was in chaos depending on what part of the country you lived in. For Utah, the Pac-12 announced in July delayed seasons and that teams would play only conference games. As other leagues took similar routes, BYU’s schedule was decimated and the independent school was scrambling to line up opponents. The Cougars spent most of their season ranked in the AP top 25 and finished with an 11-1 record after beating Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl.
The University of Utah Utes would end their pandemic-shortened season with a 3-2 record, winning out after dropping their first two games. The team said it would pass on any bowl game.
5. Racial justice: Utah and the nation called to account
The death of George Floyd on May 25 while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers touched off a national outcry and protesters poured into the streets of cities around the country, including Salt Lake City. Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after being handcuffed and held on the ground under the knee of a white police officer.
On the morning of May 30, a planned drive-by event to protest police brutality instead simmered over the noon hour as more than 1,000 marchers joined in before boiling over in the afternoon heat as demonstrators spray-painted vulgarities on the police station and burned a patrol car before marching to the state Capitol. The governor activated Utah National Guard troops and the Salt Lake City mayor declared a curfew for the remainder of the weekend.
Protests would become a daily occurrence through the early summer as demonstrators called for change and called out elected officials whom they felt weren’t willing to listen to or discuss issues of systemic racism.
Some changes did follow on the heels of the protests, with Mendenhall announcing a series of policy changes in August. Earlier in the summer, the City Council approved a budget for Salt Lake police that shuffled roughly $5.3 million toward the department’s social worker program, funded new body cameras and allocated money to a holding account to be used for future investment in minority communities. And just days after that action, Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law a statewide ban on “knee-on-neck” holds.
Mendenhall also unveiled the Salt Lake City Commission on Racial Equity in Policing in June, an advising body intended to recommend changes to the department’s policies, budget and culture. Mendenhall said more reforms, both from the newly formed commission and her office, are in the works.
6. A pair of natural disasters leave residents shaken, windblown
An early morning 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered near Magna on March 18 was the most powerful temblor in the state for decades and one felt by millions in the region. Hitting a populace already on edge thanks to the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic, the event was followed by dozens of aftershocks. The town of Magna experienced the worst of the impacts and hundreds of residents were temporarily displaced, but perhaps miraculously, no fatalities or serious injuries resulted.
The event led to a federal disaster declaration on July 9, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has since distributed $480,890 in grant money to help residents repair and rebuild. Impacts to public infrastructure are estimated at around $100 million.
Seismologists have long noted that the historical record reflects Utah, and its active Wasatch fault zone, is due for a potential 7.0 magnitude event. Experts predict a 7.0 earthquake occurs every 1,300 to 1,500 years in the state and the last one was around 1,400 years ago.
On Sept. 8, an intense windstorm described by weather experts as a “once-in-a-generation” event tore through northern Utah, mowing over trees and utility poles, knocking out power to almost 200,000 residents and leaving at least one person dead in its path.
Tens of thousands of Rocky Mountain Power customers in Davis and Salt Lake counties went without electricity for days, exacerbating challenges for residents already isolated at home for school and work due to COVID-19 restrictions. Cleanup and restoration ran into the millions and much of the fallout, like the downing of historic tree stands in Salt Lake’s Liberty Park, will be seen and felt for years.
7. An election season to match a year that’s been like no other
Amid a societal environment that could have used a break from political drama, national and local elections instead were among the most bombastic ever and, even now, repercussions continue.
President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in a battle that saw fiery rhetoric on both sides of the political divide, including a televised debate at which decorum completely left the building, a civil but substance-light vice presidential debate held at the University of Utah and voters participating in record numbers even as some Republicans, including Trump, cried foul over perceived, but unsubstantiated, election irregularities.
Biden’s victory also brought a historic moment for the country, with his running mate — Kamala Harris — becoming the first woman and person of color to be elected to the vice presidency.
In Utah, former governor and U.S. ambassador to China and Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. shook up a crowded field of GOP primary hopefuls all eyeing a rare, open governor’s seat following Herbert’s decision to bow out after 11 years in office. Herbert’s right-hand man, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, would best Huntsman in a state Republican primary and cruise to victory in the general election.
Utah Democratic candidates fared poorly across the board in spite of Biden’s national victory. Democratic Congressman Ben McAdams saw his first term come to an end as he lost to first-time GOP candidate and former NFL player Burgess Owens in another tight contest for the state’s 4th District. And eight-term Republican Rep. Rob Bishop chose not to run for a ninth term, leading to GOP candidate Blake Moore winning the support of Utah’s 1st District voters. Utah incumbent Congressmen Chris Stewart and John Curtis easily won reelection bids in their districts.
8. Ogden officer killed in the line of duty
Nathan Lyday had only been on the job for 15 months when he was shot and killed on May 28 while responding to a domestic violence call.
The 24-year-old was an Ogden native who was remembered as a man, though early in his service, who loved being a police officer for the city he grew up in. Lyday was a second-generation police officer. His father worked for the Davis County Sheriff’s Office and his brother currently works as a code enforcement officer in Ogden.
Lyday was shot while responding to a domestic violence call after a woman called 911 from a neighbor’s house claiming her husband was going to kill her before the phone disconnected. When Lyday and an agent from Adult Probation and Parole arrived in the area, they spotted John Benedict Coleman, 53, on his front porch at 365 Jackson Ave. Coleman was uncooperative and eventually went back into his house.
Investigators reported that the officers did not see a gun in Coleman’s hands at that time and began running toward the door.
“As officers moved quickly to the door in an attempt to follow the suspect, he began firing through the door,” Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt said.
Other officers responding to the scene fired several rounds as cover at the door as Lyday was dragged from the porch and transported to McKay-Dee Hospital. He was pronounced dead a short time later.
When police entered the house, they found Coleman dead.
9. New $4B Salt Lake airport a glimmering gem 25 years in the making
Traffic at the busy Salt Lake City International Airport took a precipitous fall amid the public health crisis with passenger volumes dropping from 30,000 per weekend the month before the first COVID-19 restrictions hit the state to barely over 1,500 in the early days of the pandemic. But it didn’t derail the opening of America’s newest airport.
The $4.1 billion rebuild was funded with airport user fees and bonds — not taxpayer dollars — and marks the first major hub airport replacement built in the 21st century. It’s not a remodel or expansion, but an entirely new airport. It comes with a parking garage with double the existing capacity, a massive terminal and two concourses connected by an underground tunnel meant to make air travel easier and more efficient for people and planes.
The new airport is designed for efficiency but has visual impact aplenty thanks to novel interior design concepts and art installations throughout. And whenever air travel returns to some semblance of its pre-pandemic self, those passing through Salt Lake’s gateway to the world will have 58 restaurants and shops to browse and enjoy.
Officials point out the new facility isn’t just another vanity project. Projections estimate the airport’s downstream economic impacts at $5.5 billion.
Airport executive director Bill Wyatt said the Sept. 15 opening was a “moment 25 years in the making” and shared his hopes that the facility could help inspired optimism for the days ahead, as it did for those involved with the project.
10. A horrific crime, a family destroyed
Four members of a Grantsville family were killed in a series of shootings that police believe took place over the course of some five hours on Jan. 17. Elevating the horrible nature of the incident — the alleged killer is the teenage son and sibling of the victims. Consuelo Alejandra Haynie, 52, and three of her children, 12-year-old Milan, 14-year-old Matthew, and 15-year-old Alexis Haynie, died by gunshot wounds on that day and Colin Haynie, the children’s father, suffered a gunshot wound to the leg and police believe he would have been the fifth victim if he hadn’t wrestled a gun away from his son.
Prosecutors charged then-16-year-old Colin Jeffery “CJ” Haynie as an adult in the homicides and say he returned home from school on Jan. 17 and waited for each member of his family to come home that day. His father told police that CJ Haynie told him that “his intention was to kill everyone in the house except himself,” charging documents state.
While facing trial as an adult, CJ Haynie is being held in a juvenile detention facility in lieu of $4 million bond. If convicted, he faces at least 25 years in prison. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Jan. 13, 2021.
But that’s not all
There were other major stories that did not make it to the list of 2020’s top events, including coverage of challenges facing Utah’s homeless population and the impact of COVID-19 on new shelter facilities; a closure of the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the historic building and grounds undergo an extensive renovation; an epic wildland fire season; a plane crash in a West Jordan neighborhood that left three dead; and an announcement that the Miller family had sold the Utah Jazz to tech titan Ryan Smith and his wife, Ashley.