SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson didn’t see a pandemic coming for her second year in office.
Wilson is quick to note that the experiences she faced this year aren’t unique to her, though she led Utah’s largest and hardest-hit county as COVID-19 ripped through the state, shutting down schools, throwing thousands out of work, separating families for the holidays and causing economic turmoil.
“Most of us have a work life and a private life. And I think COVID has just clobbered us on both fronts. Whether it’s the mayor of Salt Lake County’s extra workload and stress, or a store owner trying to keep the store running and not shutting down, and trying to keep employees hired and happy, but also at the same time managing small kids and trying to keep their mental health in line,” Wilson said.
“My journey is my journey, and COVID has impacted my personal life in many ways this year, as it has my professional life,” she said during an interview with the Deseret News reflecting on 2020.
The pandemic has taught her “a lot about the human condition.”
“We are very capable of responding to crisis as humans. We adapt, we support. I think we’ve found most of us have been able to dig deep and address this challenge. I also continue to be heartbroken every day I read reports and see fatalities and hear stories of suffering. I’m inspired this year by the goodness of people in the community,” Wilson said.
Personal toll of the pandemic
The pandemic came into sharp focus for the mayor recently as her father, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson, experienced an undisclosed health emergency that sent him to the hospital — something Wilson noted most residents with older relatives have feared during this time.
“My father’s one of the most dedicated fitness and good-eating people I know. I mean, he’s just the picture of health. And anybody who followed my dad’s time in office in the ’70s and ’80s knows that he was a pretty strong marathon runner,” Wilson said.
“He’s a mountain rescuer; he and his buddies forged and created many of the initial climbing routes in the Wasatch Range in his youth. And if anyone deserves to live old and have no health issues, it’s my father, because he worked for it with bike rides into his late 70s.”
Ted Wilson went to a Salt Lake County hospital for care but there were “no rooms at the inn.” His wife faced a “scary” goodbye with him as he was taken by ambulance to Utah County, Jenny Wilson said.
He was later able to return to Salt Lake County for care, and Wilson said he is expected to recover.
The experience gave Jenny Wilson a personal view of front-line health care workers as she saw “their dedication firsthand.”
“My dad’s journey gave me an even more in-depth in the weeds experience. I sat in ER rooms that were being managed differently. I know how a hospital splits COVID from non-COVID. I heard people coming in the door with need,” she said.
Like many, the county mayor and her family also had to say a difficult goodbye this year.
Over the summer, Wilson lost her mother-in-law to health issues unrelated to COVID-19, she said, and her children were unable to say goodbye to her in person.
Those personal experiences are part of what prompted county officials to launch a campaign sharing the real stories of coronavirus, Wilson said.
“I’ve heard from young people that this is no worse than a cold. That’s not true for everyone. If you’re one of the lucky people, you’re going to get through it without taste and smell. If you’re not one of the lucky ones, you’re not going to make it, or a family member is not going to make it,” she said.
Defending public health mandates
Despite the state’s large population of those against government mandates during the pandemic, Wilson became one of the first local mayors to shut down indoor dining and implement a public mask mandate.
She said she did it at the advice of public health officials.
But Wilson and other local leaders throughout the pandemic often called for state leaders to implement a statewide mask mandate, noting that the virus doesn’t respect local boundaries. Preferring to leave the decision in the hands of local leaders, Gov. Gary Herbert refused to implement one until November, when the state’s cases were skyrocketing several weeks into the new school year.
“I’ve felt quite a bit of frustration at many points in this journey. Because I’m not an epidemiologist, and I don’t pretend to be. But if scientists are at my side telling me what works, I listen and I act,” Wilson said.
She said she attributes much of the division and “lack of attention to this health crisis” during the pandemic to President Donald Trump.
“And I’m dumbfounded by the division right now and saddened by it,” she said.
Though frustrated, Wilson acknowledged that she doesn’t want to add to the division. But she believes the day-to-day realities local leaders face is getting lost in the national conversation.
“We have work to do on the ground, and we are doing that work. And it doesn’t matter if we’re a Democrat or a Republican, we’re going to serve our communities, our local health departments, our local health leaders, our (Salt Lake County Health Director) Gary Edwards and our (Utah epidemiologist) Angela Dunns. We as electeds are helping them because they’re helping us. And this national debate is damaging when it creates a burden on the system at a time when we are so deeply in crisis,” she said.
But Wilson hopes 2021 will set the stage for “better dialogue.”
In 2020, some leaders and public health officials in Utah and across the U.S. were personally targeted for pushing things like mask mandates. In the Beehive State, protesters rallied at the private homes of Dunn, Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, among others.
Wilson said the issue struck a personal chord recently when a mayor in western Kansas resigned after receiving threats for supporting a mask mandate. Dodge City Mayor Joyce Warshaw said she feared for her and her family’s safety, multiple news outlets reported.
“I understand, because I’ve been a public official for some time, that the community weighing in aggressive ways is not unique to me, and it’s not unique. But I do think there’s more vulnerability and a different tone directed toward women and women public officials, and I’m sensitive to that. I need to protect myself and my family, and so when we’ve needed to we’ve taken action,” Wilson said.
That includes protecting her staff.
“But it’s an unfortunate expenditure of public funds when we have to apply them to this type of situation. And we have in my county, and we have in the state. And I’d much rather spend less money on public safety for elected officials whether it’s a governor or myself and put it toward a need in the community,” she said.
When asked what’s kept her from giving up as a leader as case counts have surged, Wilson said the county was prepared to respond due to investments through the years in creating a strong county health department. Several years on the County Council and three years working at the University of Utah Health Moran Eye Center also poised her to deal with a large health crisis.
“And I felt the responsibility of this role. I stepped up to become county mayor some time ago, and you take the good with the bad. And I don’t know that there is anybody left who is designated with this authority for my county,” Wilson said.
Now that vaccines are available, Wilson is using the knowledge she gained working for a “mega event” — the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. That experience is helping her work through decisions on spending, logistics and priorities, she said.
“Like everybody else, it’s one day at a time. We get through a day. We make decisions. We make decisions about our families, we make decisions in my case about what is the priority as it relates to moving forward and getting through this crisis. This very much is one day at a time. I have good days and I have bad day,” Wilson said.
She also also expressed thanks to the health department and their work not only helping protect people’s physical health, but their emotional health during the pandemic.
Next year, Wilson said, her focuses will continue to be the county’s physical and economic health. This year, the county distributed millions of dollars to school districts for technology to enable virtual learning, to fight food insecurity and to help businesses impacted by the pandemic, particularly small businesses, Wilson noted.
“We’re hoping to get new clarity from the federal government. We’ve got a new administration coming. So as much as the vaccine is on the front burner for us, we’re also continuing to assess the need in the community to provide resources where we can,” Wilson said.
The County Council will also have a larger Republican majority, 6-3, following November’s election. When asked how Wilson will work with the opposing party, Wilson said it is “nothing new” to her.
“There are nine people on the council, and they each come with their own experience, they represent six of the specific areas of the county, and I value that. So I’m really excited to get to know them, hear their concerns about the county. They’ll get as I did when I entered in 2004, they’re going to get a big education on the complexities of county government and I’m happy to be a part of that,” she said.
She said she will honor what the council chooses to do, but hopes they don’t immediately want to eliminate programs or make major changes “because now isn’t the time.”
“But if they do, we’ll work through that. And I’m sorry to see some friends leave, all ... that are leaving the council were trusted allies,” she said.
“I’m not concerned ... because county government is about where the rubber meets the road and about where and how you can come up with some capacity to put an immunization in someone’s arm, and those aren’t partisan issues. So I think we’re going to be just fine,” Wilson said.
Correction: An earlier version said the County Council will have a new Republican majority. Republicans held a majority before the election, and added to it to make it a 6-3 majority. Also, the mayor was quoted as saying the number of Democrats dropped from six to three. The party lost one seat, going from four to three.