Utah in 2020: With COVID, an earthquake, winds and fires, it was a year many may like to forget — but never will

Protests against racism and police violence also brought reforms, while voters did what the Senate didn’t: Dump Trump.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) It has been a tumultuous 2020 with a magnitude 5.7 earthquake shaking the Salt Lake Valley, hurricane-force winds toppling thousands of trees, raging wildfires forcing record evacuations, protests against racism and police violence snaking through city streets and, of course, the coronavirus casting a pall over everything. Along the way, Spencer Cox will become Utah's first new governor in more than a decade, Mitt Romney made history with his vote to oust a president from his own party, and the parents of slain student athlete Lauren McCluskey settled their lawsuit with the University of Utah.

It may go down as the year we are most likely to remember — even though it’s one we’d most like to forget.

Shifting earth. Wild wind. Menacing fires. Police under scrutiny. Democracy under siege. And looming largest of all: a microscopic virus.

So before we say good riddance to the year, here’s a look back at Utah in 2020:

Pandemic’s year of living dangerously

(Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare) Hospital staffers at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray care for patients with COVID-19 on June 9, 2020.

As the sun sets on 2020, new hope appears on the coronavirus horizon. But eagerly awaited vaccines come after much mourning, with COVID-19 killing more than 1,200 Utahns.

Way back in February, before Utah’s first COVID-19 case and before Jazz star Rudy Gobert’s March diagnosis, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, warned that Utah “will get cases, and we will get community transmission.” Truer words never were spoken as the 260,000-plus cases since then prove.

During the painful pandemic, Utahns — or their policymakers — donned masks (the wardrobe choice of the year) and dickered over them; embraced hydroxychloroquine as a potential remedy and eschewed it; heeded social distancing and defied it; signed no-bid tech contracts to combat the outbreak and then questioned them.

For a time, restaurants, bars and other shops shut down and profits plunged. Schools closed or shifted to online and grades slipped. Churches locked their doors, curtains fell on theaters, and gates went up at stadiums. Zoom gloom spread, jobless rolls bulged, and the ranks of the hungry mushroomed.

Public officials vowed that Utah will beat the coronavirus, but victory will have to wait until well into next year — at the earliest.

Protesters hit the streets

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Protesters march after painting the street red in front of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

“Black lives matter.” The chant rang out on Utah streets in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They even echoed in Brigham Young University’s cavernous Marriott Center, uttered by a top Latter-day Saint apostle.

The long-simmering fight against racism and police violence, especially against Black people and other minorities, boiled over May 30 near Salt Lake City Hall, leading to smashed windows, scarred buildings, two torched cars, curfews, arrests and the activation of National Guard troops.

Further demonstrations, including streets symbolically coated in blood-red paint, and tense standoffs — police vs. protesters and protesters vs. counterprotesters — followed for days and weeks on end.

The staredowns did, however, open eyes. Police and politicians knelt with demonstrators. Murals of those gunned down by police sprang up. Law enforcement reforms took hold. Government, community and religious leaders spoke out. Anti-racism messages emanated from the Capitol and the Conference Center. Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, put it bluntly: Racists need to repent.

Even so, 2020 saw a record-tying 30 police shootings in Utah, including the controversial killing of 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal and wounding of 13-year-old Linden Cameron, who has autism. And after a Salt Lake Tribune story reported that an officer had ordered his police dog to attack Jeffery Ryans, a Black man who was on his knees with his hands in the air, Salt Lake City suspended its K-9 program. A subsequent investigation uncovered a “pattern of abuse” with police dog bites and flagged nearly 20 for possible criminal charges.

The perils of policing surfaced in late May, when Ogden officer Nate Lyday responded to a 911 call only to be cut down in a burst of bullets. He was 24 years old.

Quake state

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Damage can be seen in Magna after a magnitude 5.7 earthquake Wednesday, March 18, 2020, especially along historic Main Street.

The wake-up call came March 18 at 7:09 a.m.

A magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck near Magna, cracking foundations, crumbling historic facades, displacing scores of residents, dislodging the Angel Moroni’s horn, and rousing northern Utahns not just from their morning slumber but also to the region’s seismic hazards.

“This is the earthquake that I’ve always wanted to have happen,” Bob Carey, response and recovery bureau chief for the Utah Division of Emergency Management, said after the March jolt. “I know that sounds nutty, but it lets us understand that we can actually have this.”

A series of sizable aftershocks served as nerve-rattling reminders, too. So, in a sense, that missing trumpet atop the Salt Lake LDS Temple (the golden Moroni statue was lowered later for repairs) has never blared more loudly: Get ready, Utah, for the big one.

Utah’s ‘hurricane’

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) People take in trees downed in Liberty Park during high winds in Salt Lake City in September.

As if a pandemic and an earthquake weren’t enough, nature unleashed a once-a-century windstorm Sept. 8, killing one person, shuttering scores of schools, toppling hundreds of stately trees, and knocking out power to more than 170,000 homes and businesses.

Damage from the hurricane-force gusts, reaching up to 99 mph, snapped majestic maples, oaks and pines like so many toothpicks between Logan and the Salt Lake Valley. Salt Lake City lost many of its beloved behemoths in Liberty Park, Rose Park and the historic cemetery.

After the storm, government and commercial crews broke out their chainsaws, joining with neighbors helping neighbors and strangers helping strangers, in a massive cleanup effort. One project saw more than 3 million pounds of firewood delivered to the Navajo Nation and other Native American tribes in Utah.

Changing of the guard

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah's Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox speaks a debate with Democratic candidate Chris Peterson in Salt Lake City.

For the first time in more than a decade, Utahns will get a new governor. For the first time in nearly two decades, the 1st Congressional District will have a new representative. For the fourth time in less than a decade, the 4th District will have a fresh face as well. And for the 14th straight time in five-plus decades, the state backed a Republican for U.S. president.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert’s second in command for seven years, and his running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, took the checkered flag in the general election. But the real race, the pandemic-plagued Republican primary, went down to the wire with Cox nosing out ex-Gov. Jon Huntsman, followed by former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes.

“You will see some big and bold ideas and policies,” Cox pledged. “... I promise you I’m not the governor of the Republican Party. I’m the governor of the state of Utah. And that means all of us.”

In the always hotly contested 4th District, GOP newcomer Burgess Owens bounced Rep. Ben McAdams, just two years after the freshman Democrat barely bumped Rep. Mia Love. In eight years, this district will have seen four officeholders, two Republicans (Love and Owens) and two Democrats (McAdams and Jim Matheson).

That’s a far cry from the 1st District, where retiring Rep. Rob Bishop has been a fixture since 2003. Come January, though, 40-year-old Republican Blake Moore, a former foreign service officer and management consultant, will assume that post.

In Salt Lake County, Democrats entertained dreams of retaining the mayor’s seat (which they did with incumbent Jenny Wilson’s win) and seizing control of the County Council (which they didn’t, losing ground to Republicans, who will up their 5-4 majority to 6-3).

Voters also approved a string of constitutional amendments, including a watershed shift in how schools are funded and an overdue removal of slavery references in the state’s founding charter.

In the bitterly fought and yet-to-be-conceded White House chase, GOP incumbent Donald Trump captured 58% of Utah’s vote. Democrat Joe Biden netted 38% (including victories in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties). But Biden and his historic vice president in waiting, Kamala Harris, racked up 306 electoral votes, turning Trump, whether he acknowledges it or not, into a one-term president.

Mitt Romney’s historic stand

(Senate Television via AP) In this image from video, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks on the Senate floor about the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

In 2012, Mitt Romney made history, becoming the first Latter-day Saint to win the presidential nod of a major party.

This year, he made history again, this time becoming the first senator to vote to oust his own party’s president.

“I swore an oath before God to apply impartial justice. And, as you know, I’m a very religious person. I take that very seriously,” the Utah senator told The Tribune ahead of his landmark vote. “And so I looked at the evidence in a very unbiased manner and concluded that the president had done as was alleged — that he did ask a foreign government to interfere in the election, that he did pressure that government by withholding aid. That’s as egregious an assault on the Constitution of our country as I can imagine that a president might make.”

As one might expect, Donald Trump — the third president to be impeached and, like the previous two, acquitted by the Senate — didn’t see it the same way.

“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” Trump said in a slap at Romney, a persistent political thorn in the president’s side. “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so.”

Romney’s lonely stance came nearly two months after the House, including Rep. Ben McAdams, voted to impeach the president. In the end, voters did what lawmakers didn’t: Dump Trump.

McCluskeys reach the finish line

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Matt and Jill McCluskey speak during a memorial walk Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, held at the track where their daughter, Lauren McCluskey, a University of Utah student and track athlete used to compete.

A 24-month marathon finally ended for the parents of slain University of Utah track athlete Lauren McCluskey.

Jill and Matt McCluskey settled their lawsuit with the U. on the second anniversary of their 21-year-old daughter’s death.The $13.5 million agreement — $10.5 million going to the couple and $3 million toward the Lauren McCluskey Foundation to boost safety at U.S. campuses — concluded a 16-month legal tussle and included the school’s admission that the student’s murder was a “preventable tragedy.”

The U. also will build and name an indoor track after Lauren, who had competed as a heptathlete and also ranked among the school’s top pentathletes.

“This settlement is important for many reasons,” Jill McCluskey said. “It addresses how Lauren died, but it also honors how she lived.”

The accord came five months after new revelations that a then-U. police officer inappropriately showed explicit photographs of the young athlete to co-workers.

Where there’s smoke ...

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Knolls Fire in Saratoga Springs burned up to the edge of this neighborhood in June.

Utah didn’t see the devastatingly deadly wildfires California suffered — we did see the smoke — but the Beehive State hardly escaped the burning season unscathed.

In fact, Utah lost more than 300,000 acres to nearly 1,500 fires this year. A record 1,100-plus of those were sparked by people.

In late June, the Knolls Fire triggered what is believed to be Utah’s largest fire evacuation as some 13,000 Saratoga Springs residents from 3,100 homes had to flee. Over the same time frame, the Traverse Fire forced out residents in Lehi and Draper, and the Canal Fire did the same farther south, in Millard County.

And more

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Larry and Tammy Pinnock take a selfie with The Canyon, an art installation at the new Salt Lake City International Airport, on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020.

Airport • A turbulent 2020 didn’t slow down — in fact, it sped up — construction of Salt Lake City’s shiny new $4.1 billion international airport. The first phase, described as a “cathedral to transportation,” took off in September, but its debut flew mostly under the radar due to pandemic-reduced passenger volume.

Plane crash • A small plane smashed into a West Jordan neighborhood in late July, killing three people, including a baby. At least eight times in the past decade, The Tribune reported, planes have crashed near the South Valley Regional Airport.

Jazz and RSL • Business operations for the Utah Jazz and Real Salt Lake had opposite fortunes. Jazz owner Gail Miller sold the state’s premier sports franchise to Qualtrics billionaire Ryan Smith for $1.66 billion, while RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen, hounded by allegations of racism and sexism, plans to sell his soccer teams. The Royals are moving to Kansas City.

Teen centers • Allegations of abuse at Provo Canyon School and other youth treatment centers focused new attention on the troubles at Utah’s troubled-teen facilities, stemming partly from what some say is lax state oversight. The issue is drawing the attention of protesters, including a famous alumnus of Provo Canyon, Paris Hilton, and a Utah lawmaker.

Tax reform • The Utah Legislature, facing a ballot showdown with voters, holstered an unpopular tax reform package in January. The abandoned plan would have upped sales taxes on food, services and fuel.

BYU Honor Code • LDS Church-owned BYU retreated as well. After indicating that it was lifting its ban on “same-sex romantic behavior,” setting off student celebrations, the school reasserted in March that such actions as same-sex kissing remain out of bounds with the Honor Code, reviving student protests.

Dailies turn weekly • In late October, The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News revealed in separate announcements that they will cease printing daily newspapers and instead produce weekly print editions to go with their daily online offerings.

‘Monolith’ mystery • The appearance and disappearance of a stainless steel obelisk — an odd ode to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film classic, “2001: A Space Odyssey” — near Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah made global headlines. We best be on the lookout for HAL in 2021.