Best of Utah 2021 | Spreading the Love | Best of Utah | Salt Lake City
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    click to enlarge Sidewalk space transformed into pop-up bar and restaurant patios or stages for buskers and performing artists. - DOWNTOWN ALLIANCE
    • Downtown Alliance
    • Sidewalk space transformed into pop-up bar and restaurant patios or stages for buskers and performing artists.

    'Extra Milers'

    Those who did their best in the face of pandemic pandemonium.

    For more than 30 years, City Weekly's Best of Utah issue had a simple but reliable focus. It was our opportunity, and an opportunity for our readers, to tip our hats to the individuals, organizations and businesses that made our state better—more fun, more vibrant, more livable, more entertaining. Yes, we recognized people and groups that worked for justice and compassion, but it didn't generally feel like we had to get existential about it. These weren't, after all, matters of life and death.

    Well. Here we are. Nearly two years and thousands of lost and disrupted lives into the COVID-19 pandemic, we're still arguing over whether vaccines are necessary (not actually an argument) and debating the efficacy of masks (not actually a debate). State and local officials have repeatedly made it harder for us to emerge from the chaos into something resembling normalcy. And that makes it all the more important to honor those who have done what they can trying to make things easier.

    Below, we've identified a few worthy recipients of a Best of Utah designation for going the extra mile during the pandemic—we know there could be many more, and we welcome your responses as to who you think they might be. Some of them showed us that they prioritized the safety of their employees and customers. Some of them devoted themselves to big public health efforts. Some of them came up with innovative ways to keep us connected. All of them, however, in ways big and small, found ways to do the right thing, even when it was the hard thing. We're all just a little bit closer to that normal because of them.

    The Utah Jazz
    It's odd to look to a professional sports franchise for civic leadership, but in a state where elected members of government prefer to talk every issue—and occasionally their constituents—to death, it's both refreshing and encouraging to see the Utah Jazz drawing clear and honorable lines in the sand. Individual players like Donovan Mitchell have been patronized from on high after speaking truth to power on topics like institutionalized racism and police brutality, while the team collectively had to deal with a wave of "anti-white" nonsense over its laudable scholarship program for minority youth.

    Earlier this year, The Jazz moved swiftly and decisively to ban members of its fanbase for inappropriate behavior. And despite the certainty of pushback, ticket holders were told that they'd better show up vaccinated, or recently tested, or not show up at all. In those and many other instances, the Jazz has shown that it has the strength, resolve and foresight to do necessary good, and in so doing has set a strong community example that many of its adult fans on Capitol Hill would be wise to follow.

    KRCL 90.9 FM
    The pandemic brought with it a deluge of information, as traditional time-wasting activities were replaced with an endless doomscroll of case counts and hospitalization rates. Many fine media outlets devoted untold hours to analyzing, contextualizing and personalizing the horrors of COVID-19, but KRCL 90.9 FM went above and beyond by putting the "us" in "virus."

    Through its many hours of programming, the KRCL staff assembled a comprehensive portrait of life in the time of Corona, offering up-to-date information on the lives touched and ended by disease, as well as insightful and sensitive explorations on the many ways that our world has been forever changed.

    Salt Lake City educators
    All of our state's teachers deserve praise for adapting to—and shepherding Utah's children through—a uniquely challenging academic calendar. Educators conducted untold numbers of home visits and parent conferences to check in on families and ensure that learning was happening in the face of daunting obstacles, and utilized creative drive-through parades, outdoor assemblies and other initiatives to maintain and nurture a child's connection to their school. We'll never get that school year back, but teachers and principals around Utah worked tirelessly to make it as meaningful as possible.

    Those pressures were even more pronounced in Salt Lake City, where the decision to go all-virtual brought with it the ever-boiling wrath of the GOP-controlled Legislature. No matter whether you agree with the SLC Board of Education's decisions, it was the teachers and school principals who had to figure out how to make them work. That meant reinventing the wheel of education right in front of our eyes, as the district shifted from at-home work packets to teacher-led zoom classrooms to a new, socially-distanced approach to traditional on-campus learning.

    County Health departments
    We can—and likely will—debate forever whether and how the United States should have prepared for an outbreak on the scale of COVID-19. But those national-level gripes should not detract from the herculean efforts of Utah's county and tribal health departments in mounting large-scale vaccination operations, effectively from scratch, all while working to provide accurate and informative guidance to residents against a cacophony of disinformation, rumor and outright lies, some of which came from the very lawmakers who dictate state health policy.

    With one hand tied behind their backs, Utah's public health professionals rallied an army of volunteers and leveraged private sector partners to provide vaccines as they became available, rapidly bringing the state to the point where personal choice—not shot availability—is the primary indicator of a someone's vaccination status.

    Open Streets
    If it wasn't before, COVID-19 made clear that we live in the future. App-based services like DoorDash and telemedicine were already gaining traction, only to be thrust into the mainstream overnight while everything from churches to governments scrambled to catch up by building internet-first versions of themselves. But some of the best innovations were boringly analog, as people were reminded that often what they really need is a safe, clean, and comfortable space to be outside with their friends and family.

    Salt Lake City leaned into that need, with great results. In 2020, the city piloted a series of car-free streets, opening up miles of asphalt and concrete to recreation and commerce. And in 2021, it followed up those experiments by transforming Main Street into a pedestrian-friendly paradise during the summer months and allowing businesses to spill out to the curb. While it was only during weekend evenings—and overly cautious around the TRAX lines—the Open Streets initiative offered a boost to downtown businesses and an inviting attraction to residents looking for something—anything!—to do besides binge Netflix, while also providing the best showcase yet of what a less-car-dependent Salt Lake City could be.

    The Bayou & other Salt Lake City arts organizations
    Many businesses of all kinds have faced the difficult question in 2021 of what constitutes a "safe" reopening once COVID vaccines were widely available. Any restrictions risked not just limiting their customer base, but arousing the ire of those who believed that such restrictions were tantamount to stomping on the Constitution. That didn't stop The Bayou from becoming a rare example of a business that opted to require proof of vaccination not just for every one of its employees, but for every customer as well. Bars and restaurants have faced enormous challenges coming back from closures, but even protesters outside the business and the odd death threat hasn't deterred The Bayou from making the well-being of everyone inside their doors the highest priority.

    Those same challenges have applied to arts organizations and live entertainment venues, which remained dark for months at a time. And the same credit is due to those who chose to require vaccines for their patrons. The State Room Presents—which promotes events not just at its namesake music venue, but also the Commonwealth Room and Live at the Eccles—announced in September that it would require proof of vaccination or proof of a negative test for all attendees. Proof of vaccination also was a condition of entry for theater groups including Salt Lake Acting Company and Pygmalion Theatre Company, making a shared theatrical experience feel like less of a risk.

    The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission
    It was obvious that Utah lawmakers were never going to accept fair, independently drawn voting maps after Proposition 4 passed with the slimmest of slim majorities in 2018. The electoral victory—no small feat—was openly dismissed by government leaders as "only in Salt Lake," and when the time came, those leaders made sure to rid the new voter-created law of what few teeth it had. Worse yet, lawmakers retaliated against the state's voting majority by diving even deeper into the depths of immoral, unethical, anti-democratic gerrymandering.

    But let it never be forgotten that the independent commission did its work and did it well. After its tour of public hearings, commissioners went on to exhaustively chart out actual communities of interest, and then drew its maps (live, in public, in broad daylight!) with careful consideration for the way that Utahns naturally group themselves together—not by party registration and incumbent addresses, but by school districts, neighborhoods, geography and city residency. That effort produced 12 exemplary maps, each defensible based on coherent, objective, apolitical criteria (one noisy, performative resignation notwithstanding).

    The maps were dead on arrival, replaced by a grotesque quilt of greed and crass partisanship. Doing the right thing is hard but doing the right thing when you're doomed to fail is even harder.

    Do you have a COVID-era "Extra Miler" whom you think should be honored? Please let us know at

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