Year in Review: For better or worse, these were the top news stories of 2021
As the coronavirus pandemic dragged into its second calendar year in 2021, Orange County leaders and public health officials continued to stay afloat of shifting protocols as statewide mandates on indoor mask-wearing came and went, and came again, and as schools and events returned to in-person formats.
While the development of a COVID-19 vaccine spelled hope for a light at the end of the tunnel, a rising tide of opposition hampered Orange County’s initial goal to reach herd immunity by Independence Day.
Today, with just above 71% of residents fully vaccinated and the more formidable and transmissible Delta and Omicron variants looming large, the dream of a return to pre-pandemic life remains elusive.
For as much the coronavirus dominated headlines, coastal Orange County played host to no small number of notable events in 2021. Here are some of the top stories in the Daily Pilot’s coverage area:
Oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach spurs statewide response
When news of an Oct. 1 pipeline breach about 4.5 miles off Orange County’s coastline at a deep-sea oil processing facility went public, officials at the local, county and state level collaborated to help protect local beaches and wildlife.
As the U.S. Coast Guard and a host of agencies investigated the cause of the spill, affected cities declared local emergencies and closed beaches and marine commerce while a massive cleanup effort was organized.
Meanwhile, legislators moved swiftly in a united call to end offshore drilling in federal waters, where the spill occurred. County Supervisor Katrina Foley joined with state Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine), state Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) and state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Orange) in a call to action.
“We see something like this happen every five to 10 years,” Min addressed the Huntington Beach City Council on Oct. 4. “It’s horrific for our beaches, our environment and our marine ecosystems, and it has to stop.”
Earlier this week, authorities announced that coastal cleanup efforts have been completed.
Local participants in Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack zeroed in on by FBI
Less than one week into the new year, Americans watched as rioters protesting outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 confirmation of the election of Joe Biden as president breached security lines, storming into Senate chambers.
In the crowd were several Orange County residents, some who’d posted photos from that day on social media and boasted to others of their participation. Their words returned to haunt them, as FBI special agents followed digital trails to residences countywide, including Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa.
While many remain in custody awaiting trials, U.S. District Court judges are beginning to hand out sentences. On Dec. 7, Huntington Beach resident Mark Steven Simon — whose actions were traced to Washington, D.C., on the day of the attack, received a 45-day sentence and was ordered to pay restitution.
6-year-old Aiden Leos killed in freeway shooting, suspects charged
Aiden Leos, 6, of Costa Mesa, was shot May 21 while riding in the backseat of his mother Joanna Cloonan’s vehicle on the 55 Freeway in Orange on his way to a kindergarten class in Yorba Linda and later died at the hospital from his injuries.
Grief-stricken community members raised hundreds of thousands of dollars as a reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case, with Orange County Supervisors Donald Wagner and Katrina Foley lending discretionary funds to the cause.
Marcus Anthony Eriz, 24, and his girlfriend, Wynne Lee, 23, were arrested June 6 in connection with the road-rage shooting. Eriz reportedly fired the fatal shot from the passenger seat as Lee drove. The pair are still awaiting trial.
Following the incident, locals placed toys, flowers and candles in a makeshift memorial at a freeway overpass near the scene of the shooting. Plans are in the works to honor Aiden with a plaque at the Orange County Zoo.
Tito Ortiz wins bout for H.B. council seat, taps out amid controversy
Running on a promise to “Make Huntington Beach Safe Again,” local native Tito Ortiz was elected to the City Council in November 2020 with the most votes in the city’s history.
The former professional mixed martial arts fighter, however, experienced a tumultuous six months as the city’s mayor pro tem and resigned on June 1, citing personal attacks and fears for his family’s safety.
Ortiz’s refusal to wear a mask kept council meetings virtual for a time, and he once was made to apologize after disparaging on social media a local burger establishment that wouldn’t serve him because, again, he’d entered the restaurant without a mask.
“You have to love this job and you have to be committed to this job, and I haven’t seen it,” Councilman Mike Posey told Ortiz at a February meeting.
After his resignation, the fighter turned councilman was replaced on the dais by Rhonda Bolton. This month, Ortiz listed his Huntington Harbour home for sale for $6 million.
COVID-19 vaccine arrives in Orange County, inspiring optimism, fresh debate
From super PODS (points of dispensing) to debates over safety or efficacy, this year’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout was as fraught in our coastal area as it was around the nation.
Working with the Orange County Fire Authority, county health officials established an incident management team to oversee administration of COVID-19 vaccines and distribution points.
“This is our one-way ticket to get out of this pandemic,” Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the OC Health Care Agency, said of vaccines at the March 31 opening of a super POD at the O.C. fairgrounds. “There is not any other solution whatsoever — we need to do this.”
But even as some formed long lines for the COVID-19 vaccine, debates over the effectiveness of the shots, and whether governments and businesses should mandate inoculation, took center stage.
Orange County denizens opposed to vaccination continue to demonstrate and air their views at local public meetings at the city and county levels, calling on leaders to challenge state mandates.
O.C. schools become ground zero for parent protests
Many schools remained locked or partially shuttered, as students participated in online and hybrid learning for the first half of 2021. Parents in favor of reopening campuses held numerous protests outside school district offices, urging masklessness under the banner “Let Them Breathe” or the resumption of team sports with the chant “Let Them Play.”
School board meetings became one arena in which parents voiced concerns, asked for the adoption of anti-mandate resolutions and threatened to vote out trustees who failed to side with them. During a Dec. 14 meeting of the Newport-Mesa Unified Board of Trustees one father, worried of the prospect of kids getting vaccinated without parent consent, took on a threatening tone.
“If my son gets hurt or dies,” he said, “you best believe I’m not coming back talking.”
Popular events, once canceled, make triumphant return
Not all news in 2021 was bad news. Despite the advent of the Delta variant, many of the shutdowns that had come to define 2020 ended. This year saw a mass reopening of K-12 schools in the fall and the return of a few major events, previously forced to closure or migrate to virtual models during the pandemic’s first year.
“We will not let summer go by without some celebration of the OC Fair,” OC Fair & Event Center Executive Director Michele Richards vowed last December. “We understand how badly people want the fair back because we feel the same way. And we’re working to make that happen.”
Even with attendance caps and scaled-down offerings, the fete drew 1,055,770 guests to the Costa Mesa fairgrounds in 23 days.
Laguna Beach’s ever-popular Pageant of the Masters, a living art display, also returned this summer with the theme “Made in America,” while Huntington Beach’s previously canceled Pacific Airshow resumed in October before being canceled on its third day due to the oil spill.
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