SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – 2020 will be a year that came with a series of unexpected, but memorable headlines. There was no shortage in history-making events that included the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, the U.S. presidential election, and civil unrest. So what lessons did we learn and how can we take that into 2021?
Instead of the usual Year in Review show, we broke down 2020 into three major categories. Sean Talley, Shock Trauma ICU Nurse Manager at Intermountain Healthcare joined our IN FOCUS discussion to talk about health; Robert Gehrke, News Columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune discussed politics; and Kilo Zamora, Gender Studies Professor at the University of Utah looked back on social justice.
Health: COVID-19 Pandemic
On December 31 of 2019, China announced the discovery of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan. Then in January, the United States detected its first COVID-19 case. Utah saw its first case in March, eventually shutting down schools and sending classrooms to online learning.
Residents began stockpiling goods such as toilet paper, water, and disinfecting products. As a result, most grocery stores experienced a shortage of essential items, prompting State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn and Utah Food Industry Association to release a statement discouraging hoarding.
A number of local health departments issued public health orders prohibiting dining-in at restaurants, gatherings of more than 10 people, and for Utahns to stay at home as much as possible. Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive for the virus, prompting the league to suspend its season.
A 5.7-magnitude earthquake in Magna led to a disruption in COVID-19 testing and took down the COVID-19 hotline temporarily. In April, the state briefly ordered for a mandatory online travel declaration for all adults entering Utah, as it moved to the “red” phase as part of an established colored guideline for COVID-19 restrictions. Information released by experts showed that communities of color were being disproportionally impacted by the pandemic.
“I don’t think we really quite knew what to expect or what to make of it. I know we were very anxious and nervous and we had to figure out what our part to play in all that way,” said Talley. “As the cases started trickling into Utah, it didn’t take very long for us to kind of find our niche or get after it.”
Meanwhile on Navajo Nation, multiple safety measures implemented by President Jonathan Nez and his administration, such as weekend lockdowns led to one of the biggest turn-around in cases for a COVID-19 hot spot in the country. In Utah’s urban areas, cases hit a second and more severe spike in June with Governor Gary Herbert eventually issuing a statewide mask mandate after the November election. Schools began having multiple outbreaks after classes began in the fall and ICUs across the state were pushed to their max with overflowing capacity and exhausted frontline healthcare workers.
“Now we’re all very tired. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned how to continue this stretch, utilize our resources, and maximize our talents and abilities staff-wise. We’ve learned to be efficient with our PPE. This is something you have to experience, you can’t just learn it in school. You have to go through it,” said Talley.
The State of Utah made controversial national headlines several times including when hundreds of people gathered at the Salt Lake City International Airport to welcome back 1,600 returning missionaries and members of the public packed into a crowded Utah County Commission meeting with no masks or social distancing.
Relief came in December when the first COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna arrived. Since then, the state has administered vaccinations to nearly 17,000 people that include medical staff and at-risk community members. As of Wednesday, Utah has reported 271,940 total positive cases, 1,714,591 people tested, 484 hospitalizations, 1,256 deaths, and a rolling seven-day average positivity rate of 25 percent.
Politics: U.S. Presidential Election and Record Voter Turnout
As 2020 was an election year, the political arena had all eyes on the U.S. presidential race. President Donald Trump was acquitted of two impeachment charges in the U.S. Senate in February and the chances of him winning re-election were high, according to experts. But COVID-19 threw a wrench in the game plan and put a big microscope on the administration in regards to their response to the pandemic.
In the first three months of 2020, Trump downplayed the threat posed by COVID-19 as well as the severity of the outbreak. Throughout the year, the President has repeatedly uttered falsehoods about the pandemic that were countered by scientists such as Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization. He and several of his White House team members have tested positive for the virus.
“I think nationally throughout, we’ve seen a lot of missteps, opportunities that were lost … opportunities to ramp up testing, to get the response right. Mixed messaging, with some of it, we saw at the local level,” said Gehrke. “I think at the local level, we saw the community kind of come together and make the sacrifices that needed to be made to crush the curve, as it were.”
He went on to say, “We just had pandemic fatigue, things got politicized, people wanted to get back to work and were tired of making the sacrifices. We saw things start to slip in August and September in that huge spike that lasted in November and into this month. We’re closing in on 1,300 deaths and I think some of that could have been prevented if things had been a little bit more proactive and a little bit more unified.”
In March, Utah participated in its first Super Tuesday presidential primary. The state eventually moved the election entirely to vote-by-mail and drive-up locations.
In May and June, the country exploded in protests, riots, and demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Racial equality and social justice were at the forefront of questions posed in press conferences, debates, and interviews with political candidates, figures, and officials.
In August, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, making her the first Black and South Asian woman to be elected as vice president of the United States.
Following Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in September, Democrats and Republicans bickered over whether leaders should wait until after the election to fill her seat. Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s pick was ultimately confirmed to Ginsburg’s seat. Political analysts described the first presidential debate between Biden and Trump as “hostile” and “contentious” as the President frequently interrupted his opponent and the moderator.
In October, Utah hosted the one and only vice presidential debate at the University of Utah between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. The event brought forth months of planning and preparations for health and safety.
In November, the U.S. saw a record number of voter turnout. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted 100 million Americans to cast their ballots early. But due to a massive surge in absentee votes, the winner of the election wasn’t determined until four days after. Biden was able to flip several battleground states that Trump won in 2016 such as Arizona, George, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
“A lot of people were impassioned by it and despite the challenge of COVID, we turned out in record numbers. I think it showed an energy behind it. But it also showed the divisiveness of the politics. I think a lot of people were motivated to vote against the other guy as much as they were in favor of their guy,” said Gehrke.
After Biden’s win, Trump and his allies have continued to discredit the election by filing lawsuits, many which have been dismissed, and making unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud in several states.
Locally, there were some upsets too. Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox narrowly beat former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. in the Republican gubernatorial primaries. In the 4th Congressional District, Republican challenger Burgess Owens narrowly beat incumbent Rep. Ben McAdams after votes were finalized nearly two weeks after Election Day.
“This one surprised me a little bit just because the numbers looked like they were going to go in Ben’s favor. But there was such huge turnout in Utah County in numbers we’ve not seen before – 90,000 more voters than there were two years ago in district. That sort of shows the shifting dynamic of the 4th district, that more of it is concentrated on the south end of the valley and less of it in the West Valley or Taylorsville part of it,” said Gehrke.
He went on to say, “Going into next year, obviously there will be redistricting so those boundaries are going to shift some. The balance might be a little bit different. But Owens showed you can win in the 4th district, which is seen as the ‘moderate’ district in Utah by running on Trump’s coattails. When Democrats and Republicans both turn out, Republicans win in Utah because it’s such a Republican state.”
Gehrke said one thing we can all watch for in 2021 with politics is how Utah Senator Mitt Romney’s role will play into the divided U.S. Senate.
“With the pandemic relief bill that was signed into law this week, he was one of the architects who worked across the aisle with moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans. That’s how we’re going to get things done moving forward because there is going to be this close division in Washington,” he said. “If he emerges as one of those leaders, it could mean a lot for Utah.”
Social Justice: George Floyd’s Death and Black Lives Matter
The call for racial equality and to end police brutality was nothing new in 2020. But it was the death of George Floyd during an arrest for using a counterfeit bill in Minneapolis that launched the movement dramatically forward. Cell phone video captured by a witness showed a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. Bystanders could be heard in the video, telling the officer that Floyd was going to die if he didn’t release him. Floyd uttered the words, “I can’t breathe” before he died. The video sent shockwaves throughout the country and the world.
In the days following Floyd’s death, protests and riots erupted throughout the country, including here in Utah. On May 30, both peaceful and non-peaceful demonstrators took over downtown Salt Lake City, closing down businesses and streets in the area. Non-peaceful demonstrators destroyed, vandalized, and defaced city and private property, including burning down a SLCPD vehicle. Some injured police officers and even local journalists, including our own ABC4’s Jason Nguyen.
The damage and destruction led to the Black Lives Matter Utah and Northern Utah Black Lives Matter chapters to publicly denounce the violent actions that day and emphasize that they and their members were not behind the attacks. Several other incidents in Salt Lake City made national headlines including the man who showed up to the riots with a bow and arrow and video captured exclusively by ABC4 News of an SLCPD officer in riot gear pushing an elderly man over.
Before Floyd’s death, the highest estimate for any American protest was the 2017 Women’s March at 4.6 million participants. CNN reported that as of mid-June, as many as 21 million adults had attended a Black Lives Matter or police brutality protest.
Members of Congress began introducing police accountability bills and local municipalities began discussing what defunding law enforcement actually meant. In Utah, Sen. Daniel Thatcher partnered with the NAACP Salt Lake Branch to announce three new bills to address statewide police reform.
Corporations began recognizing Juneteenth and the State of Mississippi changed its flags. Major brands began donating or showing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Google, Walmart, Twitter, Nike, Amazon, Microsoft, and more.
“If we look specifically in Utah alone, what we saw was the question of, ‘Can our business, nonprofit, or government agency make a statement about racism? Can we make a statement about equity versus equality?’ Salt Lake City used equity as a lens to deal with the pandemic. The University of Utah were trying to make a strong, solid case for why racism was a health crisis,” said Zamora. “We were seeing people get more specific and bold with their statements. This helps our cause, it doesn’t water it down.”
In Salt Lake City, the council established a Commission on Racial Equity in Policing and enacted a new police body camera footage ordinance. The Utah Judicial Council created Office of Fairness and Accountability as part of an effort to reduce racism and bias in the state’s court system.
SLC Mayor Mendenhall issued a rare public apology to the family of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal after SLCPD released a partial clip from their body camera footage of the fatal Memorial Day weekend officer-involved shooting.
Multiple state leaders including Gov. Herbert and State Representatives Hollins, Romero, and Escamilla called for a thorough, transparent, and swift investigation in the Palacios-Carbajal shooting. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill eventually ruled the shooting justified and cleared all the officers involved. As a result, protestors defaced his downtown office with red paint and broken windows.
Outcries against tributes to Confederates were being heard and professional athletes kneeing during the National Anthem weren’t seen as un-American anymore. SLCPD Chief Mike Brown “took a knee” with protestors in an act of solidarity at the beginning of June after the destructive downtown riots. Moderator Chris Wallace of FOX News asked President Trump during the September 29th debate against Biden if he would denounce white supremacist groups, specifically the Proud Boys. He answered by saying, “Stand back and stand by.”
Students at Brigham Young University petitioned to have several buildings renamed that honor Latter-day Saint pioneers and slave owners.
Experts said what made Floyd’s death different from other victims who died at the hands of police brutality was timing and social media. The graphic nature of the video captured by witnesses and a global pandemic disrupting normality contributed to a phenomenon known as “vicarious trauma.” COVID-19 forced many people to stay home, meaning more time to consume news about Floyd. It also robbed Americans of popular escapes such as bars, movie theaters, and vacations.
“Whenever there’s a disaster, what we see is wherever there was a disparity, like racism or sexism … it makes those disparities more prevalent and clear. As the pandemic was happening, for those that were already making less wages and those who were exposed to more violence, all that became larger in the pandemic,” said Zamora.
Social media also had a big role in 2020’s social justice movements.
“When we’re looking at some of our younger people, we’re looking at TikTok, which was one of the ways they were getting quick information. We’re looking at Twitter at kind of a broader spectrum such as the use from our President, sooner to be former President and how people were organizing there,” said Zamora. “We saw that even with the more traditional platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. People were able to get information quickly and they were organizing around it.”
Additionally, what followed was a movement that impacted numerous marginalized communities. The Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians announced they would be retiring their Native American mascots. At the local level, Bountiful High School’s principal announced they would be retiring their mascot of 69 years, the Braves.
“The biggest thing for me right now that I’m focused on and seeing in the community is the difference between a non-racist and anti-racist. A non-racist is someone who says, ‘I don’t see race or I don’t work around bias and bigotry. I’m not a racist person.’ But an anti-racist is someone who’s working actively against racism. So people are really thinking deeply about, ‘Am I being complicit in saying I’m a good person? Or am I someone who actively participates and gets out there to move the agenda of racial justice forward?'” said Zamora.
The last year, not to mention the last four years, have been very difficult for the country’s immigration community. From the public charge rule to the Supreme Court reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in June, Utah immigration attorneys said this past year has been an emotional rollercoaster for their clients.
Border officials began turning away tens of thousands of asylum seekers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Homeland Security made the path to citizenship harder by adding questions and changing the answers on the citizenship test.
Advocates said they’d like to see Congress to take permanent steps to create a legal pathway to citizenship, not just for DACA recipients but also for the approximate 11 million undocumented immigrants. President-elect Joe Biden committed to introducing an immigration bill on day one of his new term in January to pursue permanent relief for immigrant communities.
To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Talley, Gehrke, and Zamora, click on the video at the top of the article.
Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.