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Wait, What Happened? A Timeline Of The Year 2020 In Utah

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Renee Bright
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KUER
Yes, 2020 was the year of COVID. But here’s a timeline of the other interesting stuff that happened in Utah last year, too.

January: Impeachment, Sundance and Condomgate

Photo of Main Street in Park City, UT during Sundance.
Jon Reed
The Sundance Film Festival drew more than 100,000 people to Park City Utah.

The year began with the end of the controversial Southern Red Sands Mine project in Kanab, and by the middle of January there was just one thing at the top of people’s minds: Impeachment.

It was also this month that the Utah Department of Health faced its first crisis of the year: Condomgate. Gov. Gary Herbert quickly blocked the HIV prevention campaign that sent out thousands of condoms with sex-positive, Utah-themed packaging. But his plan to protect Utahns from such tastlessness wasn’t entirely effective — full sets of the profalactics with messages like “Greatest Sex on Earth and “Explore Utah’s Caves” appeared on Ebay days later.

The Sundance Film Festival drew people from around the world to Park City for two weeks of film screenings, VIP parties and other close-quarters activities. It was ultimately one of the last major film festivals of the year that went on uninterrupted by COVID-19 restrictions.

Also during this month, the Utah Legislature repealed its controversial tax reform bill after a citizen-led referendum to strike down the bill gained clear traction. The state also released its roadmap to cleaner air, and a proposed oil & gas well on federal land near the Navajo Nation in San Juan County threatened the area’s drinking water supply.

February: Trump Acquitted, Polygamy Decriminalized and National Monuments’ Fates Remains Unknown

Photo of Sen. Mitt Romney at a podium in Senate chambers.
Screenshot NPR Live Stream
Sen. Mitt Romney was the only Republican senator who voted guilty on the charge of abuse of power during the impeachment trial.

The Republican-led U.S. Senate found President Donald Trump not guilty on the impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of congress. Only one Republican senator voted guilty on the charge of abuse of power — none other than Utah’s junior Senator Mitt Romney. It was the first time in history a senator voted to convict a president from their own party.

Meanwhile in Utah’s own Legislature, lawmakers voted to decriminalize polygamy in the state. The issue of plural marriage goes back to Utah’s days as a territory in the late 19th century, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints essentially had to abandon the practice in order to become the 45th state.

The future of public lands formerly designated as part of Grand Staircase-Escalente and Bears Ears National Monuments was top of mind in Southern Utah as stakeholders continued to spar over how the land should be used and who should make those decisions.

Also during February, the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy, and people started to talk about COVID-19 potentially arriving in Utah.

March: COVID, Earthquakes and The Beginning Of 2020 As We Now Know It

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A 5.7 magnitude earthquake shook Northern Utah in March — the largest quake since 1992.

Utah saw its first cases of COVID-19 in March, and by the end of the month several counties and Gov. Herbert had declared a state of emergency. Counties issued stay-at-home orders and Herbert issued his “stay safe, stay home” order. Utah schools closed and districts worked to provide internet access to students without it to begin online learning. Southern Utah’s National Parks closed, the Jazz season was delayed after team members tested positive, and ski resorts cut their season short. With so many people home and bars and restaurants closed, unemployment began to skyrocket.

COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing that shook up Utahns’ lives in March, though — a magnitude 5.7 earthquake hit Northern Utah, the largest since 1992. The quake damaged dozens of historic structures and hundreds of aftershocks continued to shake the valley for weeks.

Lawmakers were still in session through much of the month and passed two noteworthy bills: One banning elective abortions that would go into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and another that later became Amendment G. The bill would change education funding if voters approved it in November. (Spoiler alert: it passed.)

Utah was also part of Super Tuesday for the first time, and voters cast their ballots in record numbers for federal elections across the state. Sen. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary.

And lastly, a little thing called the census was sent to Americans’ mailboxes, but due to coronavirus restrictions, in-person efforts to collect responses were put on hold and the late-summer deadline to reply was postponed.

April: Stay Safe To Stay Open, Health Disparities and Hydroxychloroquine

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Brian Albers
The earthquake in March shook the trumpet out of the Angel Moroni's hand atop the Salt Lake City Temple. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided to take the statue down until already-planned construction was finished on the building.

By April, people became familiar with social distancing and Zoom meetings. Unemployment in Utah remained high and students struggled to transition to online learning. The impacts of COVID-19 were felt most significantly in underserved communities and it became clear that people of color were being disproportionately impacted. The Navajo Nation was hit especially hard and began implementing weekend stay-at-home orders to help slow the spread.

Utahns, like many people across the country, bought up all the paper supplies they could find. People were also starting to feel the strains of disconnection, so they got creative with things like porch portraits and ding-dong-ditch toilet paper drops.

And, remember Hydroxychloroquine? Utah had plans to buy enough of the controversial anti-malaria medication to treat tens of thousands of coronavirus patients. The plan was ultimately scrapped, though, after public outcry — the drug was proven to be ineffective at treating COVID-19, and the Draper-based pharmacy where Utah planned to buy it from was hit with a price-gouging complaint. This is also when the governor and state lawmakers wrestled over Utah’s response to the pandemic.

In Southwestern Utah, St. George began loosening its COVID-19 restrictions, and the Lake Powell Pipeline project continued forward despite Kane County opting out.

May: Primary Elections, Reopenings and Protests

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Kelsie Moore
Thousands of people demonstrated in Salt Lake City at the end of the month in protest of police brutality and racial inequity.

By May, Utah was easing some of the restrictions set in March. National Parks in Moab reopened, and the state moved from the “red”, high restriction phase of its original response plan to the moderate restriction phase. Dr. Angela Dunn, Utah’s state epidemiologist, called the move “aggressive.”

This is also when the Utah Business Revival group, which has been outspoken against mask mandates and COVID-19 restrictions throughout the pandemic, planned its controversial concert in Kaysville before moving it to Tooele and then Cedar City.

As the Utah Republican primary drew closer, many Democrats and left-leaning Independents switched their voting registration. They said they felt voting in the GOP primary was the only way to have a say in the state’s upcoming gubernatorial election, which would be the first time the state’s highest office was open in more than 10 years. The state also began taking a hard look at its budget based on anticipated tax revenue losses from the pandemic.

The month ended with the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota which brought people’s frustrations about police brutality and racial inequity to a fever pitch. People demonstrated across the country, including here in Utah. The demonstrations, which were peaceful during the day, turned volatile at night. Ultimately, Gov. Gary Herbert issued a state of emergency and deployed 200 National Guardsmen. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued a curfew.

June: Mail-in Primary Election, Budget Cuts and More Police Protests

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Kelsie Moore
Protesters continued to gather in Salt Lake City night after night, often heading the public safety building, asking cops to kneel with them in solidarity.

Protests continued largely without incident throughout the month of June both in the capital city and across the state. Protesters turned their attention toward calls for local change, focusing on the May killing of Bernardo Palacios-Carabajal by Salt Lake City police. Some Salt Lake City residents joined a nationwide movement calling on officials to defund the police.

After more than two weeks of public demonstrations, Utah lawmakers passed a bill to ban the use of chokeholds by law enforcement. That same day, Salt Lake City voted to reduce its police budget by around $5.3 million — a far cry from activists’ calls to reallocate $30 million of the department’s funds.

COVID-19 cases began spiking in Utah toward the end of the month, and a tug of war about the state’s response began between medical experts and state officials. Also this month, the state ultimately slashed $850 million from its budget, Utahns voted in the primary elections entirely by mail, and it was the 40th anniversary of Lake Powell. Nationally, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Trump Administration's attempt to end the DACA program.

July: Lake Powell, Cox Wins and Protests Continue

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Chelsea Naughton
A mural memorializing victims of police shootings was added in Salt Lake City's Granary District.

Utahns voted in a primary for the first open seat for governor since 2004 and in July, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox pulled out a victory. And as the pandemic raged on, evidence mounted that wearing a mask was going to be key to slowing the spread of the disease.

Protests for social justice and police reform continued, after Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill cleared all officers in the shooting and killing of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal. Salt Lake artists also erected a mural of victims of police shootings.

And as public hearings for the Lake Powell Pipeline got underway, it became clear the project would interfere with Native tribes.

August: St. George Sinkhole, Census Deadline and Virtual Living

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Lexi Peery
Sever flooding struck St. George causing one sinkhole so large it swallowed a car.

The natural disasters in Utah just kept coming as St. George declared a state of emergency following flooding and the appearance of a sinkhole. And as the census count continued in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in, overturning the deadline extension set in March. Advocates worried this would lead to an undercount of hard to reach populations.

Utah teachers and politicos would find themselves in the same boat, trying to figure out how to fulfill responsibilities safely. As school was set to return, teachers grappled with their safety and major political conventions were moved online.

Following a summer marked by protests and the death of Civil Rights icon John Lewis, more than a hundred people gathered on the steps of the Utah Capitol to remember the 1963 March on Washington.

September: Sexual Assault Kits, BYU Case Spike and Human-Caused Fires

Photo of a wildland firefighter.
Utah Fire Info
Wildland Firefighters worked to battle the human-caused Upper Provo Fire. 2020 was a record-breaking year for wildfires sparked by human activity.

For a year that had been mostly bad news up to this point, Utah hit a major milestone by clearing its backlog of more than 11,000 sexual assault kits.

The state’s fire season continued to burn on, and officials saw a record-breaking year for the number of wildfires started by humans.

A fall surge of COVID-19 cases was also underway, which coincided with Brigham Young University and other school’s decisions to allow students back on campus. Some students at BYU even held parties.

And as the pandemic continued to change our way of life, the White Mesa community modified its Bear Dance, a traditional healing ceremony.

October: Lauren McCluskey, Troubled Teen Industry and Campaigning Heats Up

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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Dr. Emily Spivak, University Of Utah Health Division of Infectious Diseases associate professor of medicine, and Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist, listen as Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a COVID-19 press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. Cases continued to spike in October.

Two years after the “preventable” death of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey, the university settled a lawsuit with her parents and admitted it failed her.

As the university had its reckoning, so did Utah’s troubled teen industry as celebrity Paris Hilton and more than a hundred people protested outside Provo Canyon School.

All eyes were on the state as the University of Utah hosted the vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence. Debates between Utah congressional candidates also began to heat up and activists shifted focus to getting more people of color registered to vote.

COVID-19 cases continued to spike. Messages from Utah officials and medical professionals grew increasingly urgent, and eventually, the governor announced a new plan that mandated masks in areas of the state with high transmission rates of the disease.

November: Elections, Wildfire Season Ends and Pandemic Holiday Season

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Chelsea Naughton
Election day in drew conservative and liberal demonstrators to the Salt Lake County Government Center, where they faced off on opposite sides of the street for hours.

Utah’s fire season finally ended, costing the state $60 million and seeing more than 300,000 acres scorched.

And then it was election season. Cox secured the governor’s seat, Democrats made small gains in the state House but Republicans kept their supermajority, and Utah’s 4th Congressional District race took a while to call.

Days after election night, the Associated Press finally called the presidential race in favor of Democrat Joe Biden, eliciting celebrations and protest from Utahns. Other groups, like Native tribes, reacted to the news by saying they just wanted what was promised to them by former presidents.

The coronavirus pandemic raged on and eight months in, Gov. Herbert announced his first statewide mask mandate and put new restrictions on social gatherings. It came as health officials warned against traveling for the holidays.

December: Vaccine Arrives, Remembering Lost Utahns and Cultural Recognizance

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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Gov.-elect Spencer Cox waits to speak during a briefing on COVID-19 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.

Nine months after Utah saw its first COVID-19 case, the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in the state. Health officials laid out their phased approach to administering it and who would get it first.

By then, about 1,000 Utahns had already lost their lives to the virus and we remembered a few of them, like Marnie Blevins and Ray Tuineau.

Meanwhile in St. George, Dixie State University’s Board of Trustees voted to recommend a name change for the school. It came after a survey found the name “Dixie” did in fact have a negative impact on the school’s reputation. The state’s board of higher education would follow suit a few days later.

And finally, Gov. Herbert gave his final monthly press conference as he prepared to pass leadership to Gov.-elect Spencer Cox.

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