Top 10: COVID tops news stories for 2021 | News

TRAVERSE CITY — The first COVID-19 vaccine in the Grand Traverse region was given to Mari Raphael about one year ago.

The registered nurse and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians member said her shot signaled the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

Instead, the virus kept roaring back in a roller-coaster ride of spikes, surges and short lulls, keeping the pandemic as the No. 1 news story of 2021.

The first wave of vaccines was given to health care workers and the elderly. Others waited sometimes weeks for their turn to come up, only to be frustrated by limited supplies, crashing websites and waiting lists.

Once the initial demand was met, things changed. Health departments hosted walk-in clinics and found themselves with leftover doses that sometimes had to be destroyed. Stores gave out coupons and restaurants gave out free beer as enticements to those who hadn’t found the time to get inoculated.

There were also those who didn’t believe the science behind the vaccine, who were fearful it would change their DNA, cause infertility or make them magnetic — none of which was true.

Leelanau County soon hit the target threshold of 70 percent of all residents older than 16 vaccinated, with Grand Traverse County soon following.

But with only about half the total population nationwide vaccinated, the virus causing COVID continued to mutate and the highly-contagious delta variant hit the region mid-year, causing an increase in positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths, mostly among the unvaccinated.

Health care workers are stretched to their limits, with many leaving the field. Those who stay are becoming more exhausted as the pandemic wears on, many of them also getting sick with the virus.

Entering the third year of the pandemic the United States is setting daily records for new infections, thanks to the omicron variant, which is more contagious, but perhaps less virulent than delta.

Deaths are also once again on the rise and as the region enters 2022, the trajectory of COVID is uncertain.

School mask/ curriculum fights

Efforts against Critical Race Theory in K–12 curricula and debates on the necessity of masking in schools made their way through school board meetings across the country in 2021.

Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education trustees watched these national debates play out in their own boardroom.

CRT has become a catch-all term for teaching about systemic racism, which touched on the fears that some TCAPS parents and community members expressed about the divisions that such teachings might cause. Others argued that understanding systemic racism in the United States’ past and present can lead to healing.

In April, Traverse City high school students held a mock slave auction over Snapchat. During the summer that followed, comments about systemic racism and curricula loomed large in TCAPS board of education meetings as the board wrote, discussed, revised and eventually signed a controversial equity resolution.

When the 2021-22 school year began, many shifted their rhetoric to the issue of masking in schools.

The TCAPS board of education implemented a universal masking mandate for its students and staff at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. They returned to the topic monthly until voting to expire the mandate on Dec. 31 in October.

Throngs of parents and community members took to board of education meetings to let the trustees know where they stood on the issue. While some voiced support for the mask mandate as a protection for their children and the community, others pleaded with the trustees to make masks optional, saying the mandate took away parental autonomy and caused issues for children.

In their last meeting before Dec. 31, the board let the sunset date stand.

Parents plan to continue to rally for the board to reinstate the mandate while a lawsuit against the board because of the mandate looks ahead to a May trial date.

Housing

Home prices soared in and around Traverse City in 2021, making it more difficult for working class families to purchase a house.

Median selling prices ran substantially higher in 2021 than in 2020 for homes in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties.

The October median sales price across the five counties was $325,000, according to Aspire North Realtors, a 6.5 percent increase over the $305,000 seen in October 2020. The September median price was $323,500 in 2021 and $270,000 in 2020, a nearly 20 percent increase.

Kim Pontius, CEO of regional real estate association Aspire North Realtors, said the year saw an influx of people moving from elsewhere.

“So much of this has come from buyers from the East Coast, West Coast, seeing such a value in what northern Michigan has to offer versus the size of the home they may have owned on either coast — and they’re tired of the big cities,” said ReMax Bayshore Realtor Matt Dakoske. “They’re tired of the weather, whether it’s hot and burning or it’s hurricanes.”

Traverse City’s increasing visibility on the national stage as a vacation destination played into its attraction as a permanent residence. Northern Michigan’s reputation as an outdoor playground meshed perfectly with Americans’ pandemic-driven desire to spend more time in nature.

But Pontius said 2021 sales also were driven by local residents who had been renting and decided it was time to purchase — before prices rose even further.

Worker shortage

Employers throughout northern Michigan struggled to hire and retain workers in 2021.

Early retirements pulled some employees permanently out of the workforce. Continuing worries about COVID infection, bolstered by expanded unemployment benefits, kept some workers at home even after the economy began recovering. Restaurants, gyms and other businesses temporarily shuttered by pandemic regulations fought an uphill battle to bring back employees they had laid off when they reopened.

Many workers used weeks away from work to reconsider their career choices, and some took the opportunity to seek better employment situations. That left relatively low-paying positions open for extended periods.

“We lost a lot of people during the pandemic who did not come back to hospitality — they switched industries,” said Trevor Tkach, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism.

Restaurants had trouble throughout the year staffing at sufficient levels. The owners of Rico’s Cafe and Pizzeria in Grawn were so excited in summer 2021 they were able to hire an experienced server that they posted a sign outside announcing the fact. But the joy was short-lived — their new employee couldn’t find affordable housing and moved back to Ohio.

Base pay levels in many entry-level positions rose substantially as employers tried to attract applicants.

A wide range of businesses were also forced to cut back offerings and hours, even days, of operation.

TCAPS FOIA ruling

The largest school district in northern Michigan admitted to violating Michigan transparency laws in a settlement agreement that ended its nearly two year legal battle with the Record-Eagle.

In September, the Record-Eagle and the Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education settled out of court after nearly two years of litigation. In January 2020, The Record-Eagle filed a civil suit against TCAPS alleging that TCAPS and former Board President Sue Kelly violated the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act in order to hide facts surrounding former Superintendent Ann Cardon’s resignation.

In October 2019, Cardon resigned as TCAPS superintendent just 78 days into her three-year contract following a complaint letter penned by Kelly that laid out criticisms against the new administrator. After widespread backlash against the board for its lack of transparency about the events, the board ratified Cardon’s resignation and paid her $180,000 in a separation agreement.

The agreed-upon settlement states the TCAPS Board of Education improperly withheld Kelly’s complaint letter from public view by attaching it to closed-session meeting minutes — a matter which was already settled by a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling in May.

Kelly is no longer board president, but she remains a trustee.

In the settlement, TCAPS board members admitted to a slew of wrongdoing, including: delaying release of the separation agreement between TCAPS and Cardon, truncating board discussion regarding the agreement in open session, concealing documents by improperly designating them as privileged or personal and signing non-disclosure agreements outside of an open session at an October 2019 meeting.

As part of the September settlement agreement, TCAPS paid $65,000 in attorney fees to the Record-Eagle. The district was not fined for costs related to claims of intentional OMA and FOIA violations.

And the 13th Circuit Court will retain jurisdiction should future transparency violations arise.

High water collides with aging infrastructure

High waters took a toll on infrastructure around the northwest Lower Peninsula, including on its roads and water systems.

Traverse City continued to grapple with threats posed to its sewer system by water levels as it sought to stabilize a river wall threatening to shift and breach a major sewer main.

The wall, along the 100 and 200 blocks of East Front Street, has the sewer main perched on its foundation. That’s been undercut by high Lake Michigan water levels washing away dirt around the pilings and behind the foundation, leading to sinkholes.

Traverse City is seeking tens of millions in federally funded loans to not only repair the river wall but to overhaul its aging wastewater treatment plant. The loans would help keep excess groundwater flows out of the sewer lines by relining old, cracked and faulty-jointed sewer mains, although falling lake levels provided some relief.

On Old Mission Peninsula, township residents continued to push for a fix to an eroded section of Bluff Road that East Grand Traverse Bay threatens to swallow. The closed section between Blue Water and Boursaw roads was the subject of an engineering study that found it wasn’t a “self-stabilizing” situation and needed fixing.

The plot thickened when the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, along with GEI Consultants of Michigan, identified what looked to be an old stone groin near the worst of the erosion. Those can help shoreline erosion in parts but worsen it in others.

No permits could be found for the work, but Mike Skurski, Mission Hills Homeowners Association president, said he believed it could be decades old, and state officials said a lack of permit didn’t indicate an illicit build.

Antrim Election lawsuit

The election related lawsuit filed in 2020 against Antrim County by a Central Lake Township man accusing the county of voter fraud, was dismissed by a judge in May 2021 but not before concerted legal — and political —wrangling.

Bill Bailey, a realtor and member of the county’s planning commission, sued the county after he said his vote was diluted when a marijuana ordinance passed by a single vote in the November 2020 election.

Bailey lives in Central Lake Township and the marijuana ordinance was on the ballot only for voters in the Village of Central Lake, though that fact was not raised in court until long after the lawsuit was filed.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, successfully filed a motion to intervene, was added as a named defendant and together with Antrim County in April filed a motion seeking to have the case dismissed.

Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Kevin Elsenheimer granted the motion May 18 and signed an order the next day which “stayed,” or paused, all other legal actions pending the outcome of a possible appeal by Bailey.

Included in the stay were motions by Portage-area attorney, Matthew DePerno, who represents Bailey, seeking to compel discovery and depositions and to amend Bailey’s original complaint to add new defendants.

DePerno, in the midst of the lawsuit, announced his candidacy for state attorney general and like other allies of former President Donald Trump, has accused an election equipment company, Dominion Voting Systems, of election fraud.

Dominion CEO John Poulos repeatedly denied this, and the company filed billion-dollar defamation lawsuits against former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and attorney Sidney Powell and sent a cease-and-desist letter to DePerno.

Misinformation about Dominion equipment went viral on social media in 2021 and stems, in part, from human error by Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy, in her office’s initial tally of results of the 2020 presidential election.

Antrim County is a heavily Republican, or red, district and initial results had about 2,000 votes cast for then-President Donald Trump, mistakenly assigned to then-challenger Joe Biden.

Guy, a Republican, corrected the errors prior to the state’s certification of the results, which showed Trump won Antrim County by 9,748 votes to Biden’s 5,960 votes.

Nevertheless, Bailey’s lawsuit swept the rural county of 23,000 into a national fight over the election outcome rife with misinformation — some of which was directed at Dominion election equipment — Trump’s opponents now refer to as “The Big Lie.”

In October, DePerno appealed the trial court judge’s dismissal of Bailey’s lawsuit to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Appellate briefs were due Dec. 13.

Parties in the case as of New Year’s Eve were awaiting news from the COA on whether judges would decide to hear arguments in what Assistant Attorney General Erik Grill described in an appellate brief as, “one of the last lingering cases seeking to challenge the results of the November 3, 2020 general election.”

PFAS contamination/ reaction

Frustrations over the state’s response to the discovery of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the groundwater in an East Bay Township neighborhood overflowed following revelations that months went by before the state warned people their wells were likely contaminated.

Eighth months lapsed between when the state flagged homes in the Pine Grove neighborhood as likely having contaminated wells and when the state notified people actually living in them and drinking the water.

State and federal regulators began investigating in February 2020 after the substances, long used in aqueous firefighting foam on airports, was found in the ground near Cherry Capital Airport and U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City. But residents and homeowners didn’t hear about it until October of that year.

Those revelations, plus subsequent emails seeking to justify the response, led to a backlash that prompted the state to review its public notification process. The Citizens Advisory Workgroup Council, part of the statewide PFAS response, took up the charge.

Workgroup members were glad to see some progress, like the state notifying people near Oakland County Airport right away that it was investigating suspected contamination based on past releases.

But Abigail Hendershott, the executive director of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, said implementing all of the workgroup’s suggestions would be complicated, and likely hampered by lack of resources.

Meanwhile, ongoing releases like two accidental firefighting foam discharges at Cherry Capital Airport showed the extremely persistent chemicals aren’t going away. A just-released nationwide map by PFAS Project Lab of tens of thousands of known and suspected contamination sites shows how widespread is the cancer-causing chemicals’ potential impact.

Systemic mental health shortages

Corrections officials across the region in 2021 said their county jails have become de-facto warehouses for people with mental health challenges, whose needs are not being met in the community.

The state has just five psychiatric hospitals with fewer than 800 beds total, records show, leaving those with untreated mental disorders at the whim of a broken system — especially dire in rural areas — further complicated by confusing Medicaid qualification requirements.

For example, in June board members of Northern Lakes Community Mental Health heard during public comment, how an elderly couple sought help for their grandson, after he stopped attending counseling and taking his medications.

Immediate help, however, is often limited to life-threatening situations — a loophole that patient advocates say leaves many without care.

Advocates from across nonprofit, corrections and mental health organizations said a community crisis center was needed to provide treatment and keep people out of jail.

NLCMHA, the region’s largest provider of mental health services, announced in April the organization was seeking to open just such a center, then faced a setback this fall.

NLCMHA planned to use federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant funds to open the new center, but learned in October their application was denied.

A contract with Grand Traverse County’s jail to provide additional mental health services for people incarcerated, ended last year and as of December was not renewed.

Grand Traverse County developed a request for proposals, seeking new ideas and new partners, to provide those services. Proposals are due in January, records show.

“Grand Traverse County is the largest county north of Grand Rapids,” Sheriff Tom Bensley said in a Dec. 9 letter to a NLCMHA board member. “The mental health needs of those in the community and in the jail is substantial.”

Law enforcement officials say some of those needing mental health services are arrested on trespassing and drunk and disorderly misdemeanor charges, while others face more serious domestic assault and felony charges.

For example, in October when law enforcement needed to house and assess a Leelanau County teen, charged with a felony in a road rage stabbing incident, the closest open bed was in Macomb County, 250 miles south.

There was a recent positive development, however.

The Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation started a new fund to support increased access to mental health services, with a founding grant of $25,000 and a $50,000 grant offered as a matching challenge to encourage additional gifts.

The goal, information from the GTRCF states, it to increase the number of mental health clinicians practicing in the region.

In 2021, the fund made two $10,000 grants, one each to Western Michigan University and Ferris State University, records show.

City lawsuits

Two decisions in 13th Circuit Court had major consequences for Traverse City, one concerning the fate of a selective fish passageway planned to replace the Union Street Dam and another on how to measure building heights for a tall buildings vote requirement.

Judge Thomas Power ruled that FishPass isn’t a park use and needs to go to a citywide vote before it can move forward after city resident Richard Buckhalter challenged the city’s authority to approve the project.

Power’s rulings put a hold on a construction project that has several government agencies, like Great Lakes Fisheries Commission and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, working together.

The city and GLFC are appealing the ruling with the state Court of Appeals, which is expected to hear oral arguments in the first half of 2022.

So too is the city appealing a ruling that every part of a building counts toward its height measurement, despite city zoning that would overlook parapets, elevator shafts and screening for heating, ventilation and air conditioning units.

Save Our Downtown argued several elements of Innovo Development Group’s plans for a building on Hall Street pushed it over the 60-foot cutoff that would require a citywide vote under a voter-adopted charter amendment. Power agreed, ruling that anything attached to a building roof is effectively part of the building.

The city and 326 Land Company disagreed over whether that ruling should impact the company’s plans for Peninsula Place, which planned to include an elevator shaft standing taller than the 60-foot limit.

Tom McIntyre, the company’s managing partner, said he’s proceeding under modified plans but hopes to build previously approved ones.