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High Desert 2021 in review: COVID resurgence tops challenges of a roller-coaster year

(Update: Adding video)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- The year 2021 began on the High Desert amid high hopes of emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, as in-school classes resumed, mass vaccinations ramped up and businesses fought to hang on and come back from the challenges of 2020.

But an abrupt turn in the pandemic, locally and globally, hit at mid-year as a new, more serious variant – Delta – dealt those hopes a major setback. A rise in illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths put hospitals and health care workers back in crisis mode while returning Oregonians to the mask mandates, physical distancing and other government actions that rekindled debate, court challenges and controversy.

A milder, but apparently far more contagious variant – Omicron – made for more concern and debate as the year drew to a close.

It was that kind of year for many Central Oregonians – a roller-coaster of progress and setbacks, an echo of 2020 with more large wildfires, severe drought and issues from homelessness, supply-chain woes and a major hiring squeeze to high-profile crimes, including arrests in a Bend 2020 double-homicide and a fatal downtown Bend shooting.

COVID-19: Highs and lows of a difficult year

The confluence of politics, government, science and public health was no less challenging on the High Desert in 2021 than it was when the virus first hit in the early months of 2020.

Those seeking a vaccine (or later in the year, a booster) often faced supply and staffing challenges, and the rising and falling risk levels and lowered, then tightened public health rules made for troubles of a wide variety, from a post-party outbreak that closed Summit High School to a canceled Bend High football contest and contentious school board meetings, protests and confrontations with parents.

Oregon OSHA fined numerous businesses in Central Oregon and elsewhere for disregarding OCVID-19 rules on mask-wearing, social distancing and closures. Most of the businesses appealed the fines.

Thousands lined up over several weeks at a mass vaccination center at the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center, to get their first, then second doses. Receiving the booster shots later in the year instead was a mix of drive-thru clinics, doctors’ office visits and pharmacy appointments.

Even as Regal Cinemas in Bend reopened in late April came a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases that led to a return to “extreme risk” for Deschutes County and indoor business and dining restrictions.

A masked Summit High school runner’s finish-line collapse prompted an outcry, and the Oregon Health Authority’s decision to drop a requirement that student athletes wear face masks during non-contact outdoor sports.

By late May, the heat was on to get more Oregonians vaccinated to such a degree that the governor announced a “Take Your Shot Oregon” lottery, with prizes up to $1 million for those who got the shots.

Almost exactly halfway through the year, Gov. Brown announced the pandemic limits would be lifted, the county risk-level system ended – “Effectively, Oregon is 100% open for business,” she said as Oregon OSHA lifted workplace rules.

Then… the Delta variant happened, along with a resurgence of cases. And many of the rules and limits returned, as case numbers rose again, in Oregon and around the country and world. Soon not only testing requirements, but vaccine mandates for state employees, teachers and health care workers became the new focus of controversy and legal challenges, from the local to national level.

St. Charles canceled non-emergency surgeries in early August, saying it would continue through the year. And Brown ordered indoor mask rules once again, then for large outdoor gatherings, while COVID and other issues made for flaring tempers at Bend-La Pine School Board meetings.

About 150 Oregon National Guard members were brought to St. Charles in late August to help the staff amid high patient counts and longer stays. And St. Charles bought a refrigerated mobile morgue due to a rise in deceased patients.

And later in the year, as the milder but more contagious omicron variant arrived, the scramble shifted to finding not only booster shots, but tests. Students returned to school, but rules remained in place to limit COVID-19’s spread, and that led to quarantines and more trouble due to outbreaks at dozens of area schools, until the state’s shift toward a “test to stay” policy. Vaccines for kids 5-11 became available in November.

Some events scrubbed due to COVID-19 restrictions returned this year, such as the Deschutes County Fair, the Sisters Folk Festival and the Bend Christmas Parade, while others did not, such as the Bend Pet Parade.

 Outdoor mask rules were lifted, then re-imposed, then lifted again later in the year.  An Oct. 18 deadline for health care workers and school teachers and staff to be vaccinated or face possible dismissal prompted many to finally get the shot, but as the focus of rising or lowering risk levels shifted from case counts to vaccination numbers, the debate, fierce at times, continued across the state and nation.

Crime and tragedy: From a fatal downtown Bend shooting to arrests in 2020 crimes – and an acquittal

In February, three Warm Springs residents were arrested in the death of Redmond resident Brian Jones, whose body was found in August 2020 on farmland north of Madras. Theresa Winishut, Salbador Robinson and Stephanie Belgard are accused of plotting to rob and kill the 52-year-old man. A trial is scheduled for April.

Bend resident Randall Kilby was arrested in late March in the killing of brothers Jeffrey and Benjamin Taylor, whose Romaine Village home he was living in. He was also accused in the fatal Christmas Day 2020 assault on Daphne Banks at the same home, having initially been charged only with assault and released, claiming she had fallen and hit her head.  The home was burned in a fire days later.

In early April, a jury on a 10-2 vote found Luke Wirkkala not guilty of murder in his retrial in the 2013 shooting death of David Andrew Ryder, whom he claimed he killed in self-defense. His 2014 conviction was remanded by the Oregon Court of Appeals over a police interview that continued after he sought an attorney.

A June 28 rollover crash at Wickiup Reservoir killed Bend 17-year-old “AJ” Clough; the 17-year-old driver faces charges if criminally negligent homicide and reckless driving, among others. Clough’s mother sued six parties for $34 million toward the end of the year, including the Forest Service and Walmart.

The July 15 opening night of the Crooked River Roundup horse races quickly turned tragic, as jockey Eduardo Gutierrez-Sosa, 29, was thrown from his horse and killed in the first race of the night.

A downtown Bend street corner was the scene of violence early on Sept. 19, as a dispute led to the fatal shooting of Barry Washington Jr., 22. Many were incensed that police initially charged Ian Cranston, 27, only with second-degree manslaughter, he posted $10,000 bail and was released – but re-arrested on second-degree murder and other charges after a grand jury indictment.

More than a year after the bodies of Ray Atkinson and his fiancée, Natasha Newby, were found in the basement of their northeast Bend home, two men were arrested Oct. 1in the double-homicide – Atkinson’s brother, Kenneth Atkinson, and Kenneth Atkinson’s nephew, Nathan Detroit II, in an alleged murder-for-hire plot. They are now scheduled to enter pleas to six murder and conspiracy charges on Jan. 14, though that could be delayed further.

In early October, experienced kayaker Alex Kollar, 28, of Bend, apparently drowned in a whitewater area of the Deschutes River, prompting several days of unsuccessful searching for him.

Bend Police Officer Kevin Uballez was charged in October with misdemeanor assault and harassment, accused of slamming an intoxicated man to the ground while trying to take him into custody in early June. He remains on paid leave and pleaded not guilty to the charges in mid-December.

Politics, education and government: New congressman, Bend councilors and difficult issues

January marked a swearing-in for Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, and new Bend city councilors Melanie Kebler, Anthony Broadman, Megan Perkins and Rita Schenkelberg. They and their colleagues, who met virtually through the year, focused their priorities on affordable housing and a host of other issues.

And in May, a fiercely fought contest for four Bend-La Pine School Board seats found incumbent Carrie Douglass winning another term, along with new arrivals Marcus LeGrand, Janet Llerandi and Shirley Olson. Sisters voters approved a bond measure that will bring a new elementary school.

A new wilderness trail permit system aimed at easing of large numbers of visitors went into effect, but Forest Service officials were surprised by the number of no-shows in the initial year.

And the 2020 Census numbers, delayed by COVID, confirmed Oregon would get a sixth congressional District, which led to a scramble to draw new district boundaries that prompted failed legal challenges by Republicans and a scramble for candidates to decide whether and where to run in the dramatically redrawn legislative lines, before the filing deadline coming up in March.

 Perhaps no issue (besides COIVD) stirred more emotions, debate and even anger locally than the rising number of homeless in the Bend area, and how to deal with their impacts.

Federal funds distributed by the state through “Project Turnkey” led to former Bend and Redmond motels being converted into shelters, while Bend and the Shepherd’s House Ministries created Bend’s first full-time “low-barrier” shelter at what had served as a seasonal, emergency warming center.

But ODOT’s periodic sweeps of homeless camps, citing public safety issues, sparked concern, as did Bend’s clearing of a homeless camp on Emerson Avenue and efforts by residents, service agencies and the city to help the dozens living along Hunnell Road, made more urgent after two campers died amid record summer heat (though that was not determined to be the cause of their deaths).

Oregon lawmakers also directed local governments to rewrite their rules by 2023, to follow a landmark 2018 federal court ruling and let the homeless remain on public property, if there aren’t enough shelter beds available, though they can still decide what is reasonable enforcement.

The search for sites for managed homeless campsites also sparked neighborhood dismay in northeast Bend and other locations, especially a site off Ninth Street, near Bend High and Bear Creek Elementary schools, and a new Juniper Ridge proposal, as officials used other avenues to try to address the problem – most notably the Veterans Day opening of the Central Oregon Veterans Village.

After several days of testimony, a federal jury in late August awarded fired Deschutes County sheriff's deputy Eric Kozowski more than $1 million in his lawsuit against Sheriff Shane Nelson and the county. He had alleged retaliation by Nelson, who defeated him in the 2016 election and fired him over a year later.

Millions in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan distributed to local governments went toward a wide variety of projects, from COVID-19 relief to affordable housing. Millions more will be coming from the new federal infrastructure bill

Other political issues flared, such as the use of a Confederate flag during the Redmond Chamber of Commerce Fourth of July Parade.

Growth brought its own disputes, such as residents along Bend’s River’s Edge Golf Course suing over Pahlisch Homes’ plans to turn much of the course into homesites – a flap quite possibly resolved with an agreement by the homeowners to buy the course and keep it open to the public.

As schools reopened in the fall, Bend’s first large new high school in 20 years, the $140 million Caldera High, opened in the southeast corner of the city. And OSU-Cascades celebrated completion of its new academic building, Edward J. Ray Hall, a $49 million, 50,000-square-foot building designed to be “net zero” in energy use.

And in a local November ballot far shorter than the ones coming in 2022, Jefferson County voters approved a $24 million school bond measure and jail operating levy, while Crook County voters approved construction of a new justice center and remodeling of its historic courthouse.

Oregon lawmakers met in special session in mid-December and finished their business in less than a day, from extending COVID-19 eviction protections and rental assistance for tenants and landlords to drought relief including for Jefferson County and other farmers.

Business: WinCo arrives, Boneyard bought, pharmacies close, staffing shortages hit and supply chains struggle

The long-awaited opening of Bend’s new WinCo Foods in the former Skopko location in early February provided a new option for bargain-hunters.

The closure of Bi-Mart pharmacies in several communities affected many Central Oregonians and even prompted congressional scrutiny, as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pointed to pharmacy benefit managers as having a negative impact on drugstores and their ability to operate.

Boneyard Beer was acquired in early March by fellow Bend beer-maker Deschutes Brewery.

St. Charles Bend was hit by its first strike in over 40 years, as more than 150 union-represented technologists, therapists and technicians picketed the hospital. The strike ended 10 days later as the two sides returned to the bargaining table.

Facebook announced yet another expansion at its Prineville data center, adding two buildings and nearly 1 million square feet by 2024.

COVID-19 was just one factor that made for tough times for High Desert businesses large and small in their quest to find enough workers. Fast-food and other restaurants cut hours, menus or both, and “Help Wanted” banner signs became common, as it seemed no businesses was immune from the struggles, as even sizable pay hikes didn’t bring in adequate numbers of job-seekers. Some had child care issues, while some sought better jobs in what some called the “Great Resignation.”

Businesses didn’t need another hit leading to empty shelves, but they got it as a backup at clogged U.S. ports meant supply-chain issues and a major challenge in meeting customers’ desires and requests.

At the intersection of business and lifestyle, a major upgrade to the Les Schwab Amphitheater and alliance with Live Nation brought a host of big-name acts in the late summer and early fall – and then came news that the riverfront venue was getting a new name: The Hayden Homes Amphitheater.

Mt. Bachelor sparked opposition but held its ground after it announced a new fast-pass ticket, starting at $49, to avoid the lines at some chairlifts this season. And the resort had to put off its opening twice, along with other Oregon resorts, as it took a few extra weeks for enough snow to show for a Dec. 13 opening day. Hoodoo Ski Area opened four days later.

Climate, weather and wildfires: Wickiup dries up, farmers suffer; fires hit again and coking smoke returns

The impacts of climate change – still a controversial topic – were very evidence, as Wickiup Reservoir dropped very low and irrigation water for farmers, especially in the North Unit Irrigation District, was cut drastically and turned off in late August. Drought was hitting across the West, pushing up hay prices.

Bend set an all-time record high of 107 degrees at the end of June, followed by its hottest July on record.

The Grandview fire north of Sisters grew fast to cover thousands of acres, prompting “Go Now” and “Get Set” evacuation notices in the area for some, and “Get Ready” notices for others.

Also in June, two brushfires in Redmond amid soaring heat shut down the Redmond Airport and Highway 126 for a time in late June; two campfires were determined to be the causes.

Amid the heat, dry fuels and threat of wildfire, the cities of Redmond and Bend and Deschutes County banned fireworks – Bend city councilors later made it a permanent move.

The S-503 Fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation burned about 6,800 acres as crews battled the blaze in temperatures soaring well past the century mark.

It was by no means among the largest Oregon fires this summer, but the nearly 700-acre Darlene Fire that broke out July 13 southeast of La Pine destroyed two homes, nearly a dozen other structures and some vehicles.

By early August, unhealthy, even “hazardous”-level smoke cloaked Bend, much of it from wildfires burning hundreds of miles away.

It wasn’t all crises, grief or gloom

Of course, there are often many small and large moments of joy, success and satisfaction in everyone’s life, even if not always shared with everyone like a breaking news alert.

There are moments such as:

-A 150-foot-tall helium-filled balloon soared aloft from Madras Airport in mid-August, reaching 110,000 feet in elevation in a test for NASA partner Near Space Corp. of Tillamook. The balloon carried a large test object that was dropped and returned to Earth from outside the atmosphere. It was a test of drop accuracy, so the International Space Station can one day send items back down to Earth in precise fashion.

-Two cultural icons converged in memorable fashion back in April, as the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile paid a visit to the world’s last Blockbuster Video in northeast Bend. Many pictures were taken, just as one would expect.

-And Bend Pearl Harbor survivor Dick Higgins had a memorable 100th year, from a big birthday celebration in July – not to mention surviving bouts with COVID-19 and pneumonia – to a return to Hawaii with his family to mark the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack that thrust America into World War II.

Author Profile Photo

Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.



    1. You’re welcome. Had to zoom through a lot of front pages to make sure didn’t miss anything big. Would have made it a ‘year in links’ but was way too long to do that well and still get some sleep!;-) But our archives are really good – and we’re well-visited by Google, so any of our year’s articles (and many going back years!) are easily findable.

    1. Oh ??? So now yer a “Wall Street” guy ! I see where Gas Buddy announced near record highs predicted for fuel prices by Spring… anyone depending on Wall Street to pay their heating bills is in for a big surprise. America is in a depression- both economically and mentally- looking at all the “bad” news here from 2021- with nothing more than three bullet points of “positive” news at the tail end- speaks volumes for where our country is- many say- on the verge of Civil War. You can thank your failed political leaders and a coddling media for all that… it will get worse ! Prepare accordingly.

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