Erin Mendenhall: Pre-COVID times were not so good. Let’s not go back.

The pandemic exposed inequalities in our community that we can now overcome.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A pedestrian makes their way past an empty Gateway Mall in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 29, 2020.

As Salt Lake City marked one year since the day I signed the first of what would become 17 emergency orders over the course of the pandemic, I’ve been reflecting on how far we’ve come as a city, how much we’ve endured, and where we are headed.

While I couldn’t have predicted everything the year had in store for us, it quickly became apparent that COVID-19 would be a major issue — not just for one year, but for at least my first term as mayor.

Those early days in March 2020 were marked by great uncertainty and fear. As our office buildings and classrooms emptied, we faced upheaval on a scale most of us haven’t seen in our lifetimes. It didn’t help that our frayed nerves were promptly jolted yet again by the Magna earthquake on March 18, and the thousands of aftershocks that followed. The crises exposed and exacerbated pre-existing pain points of our systems, as well as the opportunity and responsibility we have to solve them.

I’m so grateful to see case numbers decline and vaccinations increase, but I am not interested in getting back to the old normal because the pre-COVID status quo was not good for everyone. It wasn’t just, or safe or fair for everyone. We can do better, and I’m proud of the ways our capital city has already started.

Creating equitable opportunities for every resident is one of the primary pillars of my administration. I came into office with plans of working to close the digital divide, which serves as a barrier that prevents many of our residents from connecting with the city, their schools, their jobs and their communities in meaningful ways. We fast-tracked those plans in a hurry, and saw city practices, from permitting to boards and commissions, and even hearings at the justice court, all shifted online to give residents the ability to interact with us safely.

We’ve seen the disproportionate impact the virus has had on our communities of color, not just in terms of health outcomes but also in terms of job loss, housing and food instability, challenges that existed before the pandemic and were made worse by it. My office is currently in the hiring process for a chief equity officer, who will work toward ensuring that equity and access to opportunity underpins all of our city functions.

Harnessing growth for the good of every resident is a second pillar of my administration, and I’m proud to report that we’ve made good on a promise to create an apprenticeship program. This program pays a living wage and gives young people and adults without previous experience the opportunity to gain valuable skills and on-the-job training and mentorship.

The tests of the last year also crystallized how our regular methods of communication and engagement fell short. Dealing with a public health crisis, particularly one that impacted diverse communities in such a devastating way, challenged us to get messages out in new ways. We posted regular videos on COVID in 11 languages, stapled informational fliers onto food bank bags, and posted bulletins at grocery stores and other high-traffic areas.

We also discovered how confusing the information and mis-information deluge was to many residents who struggled to figure out which rules applied where and who was in charge of what. We still have much work to do to improve communications when a crisis hits.

On March 1, members of the Salt Lake City Council and I joined millions of others throughout the nation in remembering the victims and survivors of COVID-19. Salt Lake City has lost 150 souls to this harrowing disease. And as of today nearly 340,000 Utahns have been fully vaccinated.

These two ever-changing figures are with me always. The former demands to be remembered, to be honored, to be mourned. And the latter gives me hope. With every vaccination, we have the chance to build a future that is stronger and more equitable for all.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erin Mendenhall in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020.

Erin Mendenhall is the mayor of Salt Lake City.