San Antonio’s top 10 stories of 2021: From February freeze to mask mayhem – San Antonio Express-News

2021 was a year of hardships and perils as Texans faced a deadly winter freeze that shut down electrical power across much of the state and a contagious virus that continued to kill thousands of residents for a second consecutive year.

But it was also a year of triumph as the University of Texas at San Antonio Roadrunners football team enjoyed its first Conference USA championship season, electrifying and exhilarating fans across the city and state.

10. Voting rights

Texas House of Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, (D-San Antonio), arrives at Bergstrom International Airport along with more than 50 Democratic state representatives as they abscond by flying out of Austin, Texas to Washington, D.C. Monday, July 12, 2021.

Texas House of Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, (D-San Antonio), arrives at Bergstrom International Airport along with more than 50 Democratic state representatives as they abscond by flying out of Austin, Texas to Washington, D.C. Monday, July 12, 2021.

Jerry Lara / San Antonio Express-News

Texas GOP politicians enacted new voting restrictions this year. In September, Abbott signed into law several new restrictions on how and when voters cast ballots, including bans on 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting. The new law also ends the use of unstaffed drop boxes to collect absentee ballots and gives partisan poll watchers more power to observe election activities.

The governor said the new measures mean that “election integrity is now law in the state of Texas.” He contended the new legislation will expand voting opportunities for all Texans by requiring more hours of early voting in most of the state. Several groups — including Voto Latino, LULAC Texas, the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and the Texas American Federation of Teachers — have filed a lawsuit to block the new law.

Texas House Democrats, who were outnumbered in their opposition to the new law, had lodged a flurry of objections to the bill and walked out of the state Capitol in protest late on the last day of the regular legislative session in May, which left fewer than the 100 members required on the House floor for a vote. Opponents said the new measures were discriminatory and particularly affected voters of color, with disabilities and living in rural areas. But Abbott vowed to resurrect the election bill in a special session.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Texas in November over the state’s new voting law, alleging the measure violates the rights of voters with disabilities and other minority groups.

The state’s GOP-led Legislature also drew new restricting maps this year to reflect Texas’ population increases since 2010, but the Justice Department again sued the state, claiming lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority voters while redrawing those political districts. The federal lawsuit contends the new districts for Congress and the state House of Representatives violate the Voting Rights Act. But the Texas GOP countered that the new redistricting maps weren’t based on racial data.

Critics said Texas’ GOP-led Legislature declined to add any new majority-minority districts even as people of color drove 95 percent of the state’s population growth of more than 4 million people over the past decade. Hispanic Texans accounted for roughly half of that increase.

9. UTSA’s winning season

UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor hoists up running back Sincere McCormick (03) after UTSA defeats Western Kentucky the 2021 Conference USA Championship football game at the Alamodome on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. The Roadrunners defeated the Hilltoppers, 49-41, to win the championship. McCormick earned the most valuable player.

UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor hoists up running back Sincere McCormick (03) after UTSA defeats Western Kentucky the 2021 Conference USA Championship football game at the Alamodome on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. The Roadrunners defeated the Hilltoppers, 49-41, to win the championship. McCormick earned the most valuable player.

Kin Man Hui, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

The UTSA Roadrunners enjoyed a spectacular football season, winning their first Conference USA championship and racking up 12 wins and two losses. The team was undefeated for an 11-game streak until it lost to North Texas on Nov. 27.

2021 also marked UTSA’s first appearance in the national top 25.

A high point occurred Dec. 3 when UTSA defeated Western Kentucky during the championship game, clinching a 49-41 victory before an adoring, frenzied crowd of 41,148 spectators at the Alamodome.

UTSA running back Sincere McCormick was named Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year for a second consecutive season, setting UTSA records with 1,479 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, tacking on 22 catches for 184 yards. UTSA head football coach Jeff Traylor was honored as Conference USA Coach of the Year.

UTSA went on to the Frisco Bowl on Dec. 21, when it fell to San Diego State in a 38-24 loss before a crowd of 15,801 mostly Roadrunners fans.

In October, Traylor signed a contract extension with UTSA that runs through 2031 and is valued at $28 million. His annual salary will average $2.8 million, not including potential bonuses, UTSA officials said. Traylor has served as the school’s head football coach for two years.

UTSA is leaving Conference USA for the American Athletic Conference, which will offer the Roadrunners a higher level of competition while maintaining rivalries within Texas. School officials said the move will bring UTSA more national media exposure, more Texas match-ups and greater recruiting opportunities.

8. Abbott targets immigration

Migrants wait Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021 under and around the international bridge between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuna, Merxico as they wait to be processed by immigration officials. The Del Rio mayor posted messages to social media Wednesday saying about 4,000 were waiting at the bridge to be processed and he said more migrants are coming to the city.

Migrants wait Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021 under and around the international bridge between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuna, Merxico as they wait to be processed by immigration officials. The Del Rio mayor posted messages to social media Wednesday saying about 4,000 were waiting at the bridge to be processed and he said more migrants are coming to the city.

William Luther, Staff / Staff

Immigration also remained at the forefront of public attention throughout 2021 as Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star program, launched in March, used state troopers and Texas National Guard soldiers to arrest migrants at the border for criminal trespassing. A Hearst Newspapers investigation found the arrests overwhelmed the court systems of small Texas counties and noted some migrants were jailed for weeks without being formally charged or given a chance to obtain legal counsel.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported increasing numbers of encounters with hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to cross the border this year. The federal agency reported nearly 2 million nationwide encounters throughout the 2021 fiscal year that ended in September and nearly 385,000 encounters just in October and November.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also reported seizing more than 913,000 pounds of illegal drugs in the 2021 fiscal year that ended in September and more than 152,000 pounds of such substances just in October and November alone. The largest seizures were made of marijuana, khat (catha edulis), methamphetamine and cocaine, CBP statistics show. Khat leaves act as a stimulant when they are chewed, according to National Institutes of Health publications.

Operation Lone Star resulted in the arrests of thousands of people this year for offenses such as smuggling, human trafficking and trespassing and, as of early December, the seizure of 160 pounds of fentanyl.

The Texas border operation prompted 26 U.S. House Democrats to send a letter to federal officials complaining about Operation Lone Star and seeking federal guidance on whether the state’s tactics are legal.

7. Spotlight on domestic violence

Ellie De La Cruz (left) carries a sign with a count of women murdered in San Antonio as she joins the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative - a San Antonio organization that seeks to end family violence - during a rally near City Hall on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 to call attention to domestic violence accusations against mayoral hopeful Greg Brockhouse. About two dozen people held signs to denounce domestic violence.

Ellie De La Cruz (left) carries a sign with a count of women murdered in San Antonio as she joins the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative – a San Antonio organization that seeks to end family violence – during a rally near City Hall on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 to call attention to domestic violence accusations against mayoral hopeful Greg Brockhouse. About two dozen people held signs to denounce domestic violence. “How is it possible that chicken is more important to discuss than allegations of domestic violence,” a flier from The P.E.A.C.E. Initiative reads in reference to a recent city contract controversy involving Chick-fil-A restaurants. (Kin Man Hui/San Antonio Express-News)

Kin Man Hui, Staff / Staff photographer

Domestic violence drew a bigger spotlight this year after a San Antonio Express-News investigation published in November revealed the number of people killed in domestic violence assaults in Bexar County nearly doubled from 27 victims in 2016 to 43 victims in 2020. Bexar County ranked second in 2020 among Texas’ most populous counties reporting the highest rate of intimate partner killings. Only Tarrant County reported more such cases.

The newspaper’s investigation also found that Bexar County had the lowest conviction rate for domestic violence assaults and the highest dismissal rate for such cases among Texas’ urban counties from 2011 to 2020.

Bexar County commissioners agreed this month to spend $3.3 million to hire more prosecutors, investigators and victim advocates and to create two temporary courts to address a large backlog in domestic violence cases. One of the commissioners, Trish DeBerry, described Bexar County’s domestic violence cases as “a public health crisis.”

Commissioners also approved about $500,000 for a new surveillance program to track domestic violence suspects and notify law enforcement and victims through a smartphone app if abusers come within a certain distance.

6. Abortion rights suspended

People march through Downtown San Antonio, Texas, as they participate in the “Ban Off Our Bodies” abortion rights march Saturday afternoon, Oct. 2, 2021. It was one of more than 600 planned abortion rights rallies taking place in cities across all 50 states Saturday.

People march through Downtown San Antonio, Texas, as they participate in the “Ban Off Our Bodies” abortion rights march Saturday afternoon, Oct. 2, 2021. It was one of more than 600 planned abortion rights rallies taking place in cities across all 50 states Saturday.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer / San Antonio Express-News

The legality of abortion also took center stage as Texas enacted a new law on Sept. 1 that outlaws nearly all abortions once cardiac activity can be detected from a fetus, which usually occurs about six weeks into a pregnancy.

Known as Senate Bill 8, Texas’ new law enacted the most severe abortion restrictions found in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to delay the new law and denied an emergency appeal filed by abortion providers.

The new law allows almost any citizen to sue a doctor or anyone else who helps provide an abortion outside of the narrowly restricted time limits. It doesn’t allow exceptions for pregnancies that occur through rape or incest.

Planned Parenthood and other providers in San Antonio immediately stopped offering abortions once the new law took effect. Pregnant women now have to travel outside Texas to undergo such procedures.

Opponents of the law have expressed concerns that the new restrictions will most seriously affect low-income women who can’t afford to travel out of state.

Meanwhile, Roe v. Wade — the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion — appears to be in peril, with many now wondering if the nation’s highest court will overturn it.

5. Pandemic politics

Former President Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott address supporters and media by the border wall in Pharr, Texas, Wednesday, June 30, 2021.

Former President Donald Trump and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott address supporters and media by the border wall in Pharr, Texas, Wednesday, June 30, 2021.

Jerry Lara / San Antonio Express-News

Statewide, multiple lawsuits questioning the legality of Abbott’s orders have yet to reach trial. Through pre-trial restraining orders and injunctions, various attempts to force compliance with Abbott’s directives — or to allow cities, counties and school districts to ignore the governor — led to multiple, contradictory rulings at every level of the judicial system, with the balance going against Abbott.

The lawsuits were accompanied by sharper language among officials who continued to call for a unified public effort against the spread of infection. President Joe Biden criticized Abbott’s ban on mask and vaccine mandates. Nirenberg called it “an egregious and malicious overstep to tie the hands of the local public health authorities and school districts.”

“Students going back to school should be going to school in masks,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff added, quoting the Centers for Disease Control. “We have had enough.”

On Sept. 5, a woman accosted Wolff at a North Side H-E-B and berated him for three minutes, posting a video of herself predicting that he’d be jailed and lynched and accusing him of “treason and crimes against humanity.” Wolff laughed at her and later shrugged it off — something similar had happened to him at the checkout at a hardware store the year before.

The Texas Department of State Health Services revealed that Texans unvaccinated against COVID-19 were about 20 times more likely to suffer a COVID-19-associated death and were 13 times more likely to test positive than people who were fully vaccinated, according to state data collected in September.

In Texas, more than 16 million residents — about 58 percent of the population — have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

4. Schools and masks

Parents become restless as NEISD school board members speak for almost two hours during and emergency school board meeting concerning mask mandates in the school.

Parents become restless as NEISD school board members speak for almost two hours during and emergency school board meeting concerning mask mandates in the school.

Jessica Phelps, Staff photographer / San Antonio Express-News

Texas public schools started 2021 with campuses open for in-person learning for families that wanted it and online classes available for everyone else. The state also required masking and social distancing at schools, but in March, when the vaccines were made available to all Texas adults, Gov. Greg Abbott made mask requirements optional for school districts. Few area districts took him up on it.

By August, with the delta variant surging, Abbott had ordered public entities not to require mask-wearing. School systems here that wanted to keep their mask mandates did so anyway, under cover of a lawsuit by San Antonio and Bexar County that kept the governor’s order from being enforced locally.

But Texas also had stopped paying for virtual learning, so most students went back to classrooms, delta or no delta — and every school district’s safety policy became an arena for the politics of mask-wearing and vaccines.

Anti-mask hecklers interrupted trustees — even those who favored making masks optional — at a Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District board meeting. A woman who refused to keep her mask on was lifted in her chair by police and carried out of a Northside ISD board meeting. Adults protesting masks shouted at kids who were wearing them as they arrived at a Northside elementary school.

Even as the delta caseloads lessened, the arguments over classroom safety seemed to overshadow greater problems for education.

The learning loss caused by the pandemic was being measured against constant new damage — noticeable drops in enrollment, burnout-driven teacher and staff shortages and an inability to hire specialists for rising numbers of students needing mental health counseling. Historic shortfalls in helping students with disabilities reached crisis levels in some districts.

3. Vaccinations bring relief

Loc To, 87, right, waits with her daughter and other eligible people with appointments to get the COVID-19 vaccine at the Alicia Trevino Lopez Senior Community One-Step Center, a WellMed senior center, in San Antonio on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021.

Loc To, 87, right, waits with her daughter and other eligible people with appointments to get the COVID-19 vaccine at the Alicia Trevino Lopez Senior Community One-Step Center, a WellMed senior center, in San Antonio on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021.

Lisa Krantz, Staff / Staff photographer

COVID vaccines became widely available to the public in 2021 and continued to dominate news headlines throughout 2021 as the nation debated their safety and effectiveness.

Mask-wearing had become inseparable from national politics the year before, with anti-government social media posts fueling the idea that they are ineffective or that requiring them is an intolerable affront to personal liberty. Vaccinations were greeted with relief by large parts of the population but quickly became part of that debate.

Public health officials say the shots are safe and reduce the chances that someone will become severely ill or die from COVID-19, but no vaccine can guarantee that no infection will occur.

Front-line health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities were the first to be vaccinated in Texas beginning in December 2020. The state soon extended vaccine eligibility to senior citizens and those 16 and older with underlying health conditions.

Children 12 to 15 years old had become eligible for coronavirus vaccines in May, followed by children ages 5 to 11 in November.

Adults were urged to get a booster shot at least six months after completing the Pfizer or Moderna COVID vaccination series or at least two months after getting the primary Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Like the initial vaccine, booster shots are free and widely available.

2. COVID-19 battle continues

Sergio Gonzalez and daughters Sophia and Destiny embrace near the coffin of wife and mother Veronica Bustos Gonzalez. On Friday, family and friends gathered at Mission Park Funeral Chapels South to bury Veronica, her sister and her father, who died from COVID-19 within eight days of each other in August.
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Sergio Gonzalez and daughters Sophia and Destiny embrace near the coffin of wife and mother Veronica Bustos Gonzalez. On Friday, family and friends gathered at Mission Park Funeral Chapels South to bury Veronica, her sister and her father, who died from COVID-19 within eight days of each other in August.

Jessica Phelps, Staff photographer / San Antonio Express-News

Family of Monico Jose Bustos and his daughters, Veronica Bustos Gonzalez and Dalilah Bustos Arreola, say goodbye. Bustos and his daughters all died from COVID-19.
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Family of Monico Jose Bustos and his daughters, Veronica Bustos Gonzalez and Dalilah Bustos Arreola, say goodbye. Bustos and his daughters all died from COVID-19.

Jessica Phelps, Staff photographer / San Antonio Express-News

A smuggler carries Venezuelan migrant Belkis Salas across the Rio Grande near Del Rio on Friday, April 30, 2021. Salas fell at the halfway point of the river crossing. A DPS agent helps Belkis out of the river and onto American soil.
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A smuggler carries Venezuelan migrant Belkis Salas across the Rio Grande near Del Rio on Friday, April 30, 2021. Salas fell at the halfway point of the river crossing. A DPS agent helps Belkis out of the river and onto American soil.

Jessica Phelps, Staff photographer / San Antonio Express-News

Six-year-old Emily Mancha watches her mother Amelia Tovar comfort her 8-year-old brother Hector Mancha as he receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a pop up vaccine clinic down the street from the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge in Hidalgo, Texas, Thursday morning, Nov. 11, 2021. The family crossed into the United States to visit Tovar’s sister Brianda Tovar Rodriguez and decided to get the children vaccinated at the free walk-up clinic.
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Six-year-old Emily Mancha watches her mother Amelia Tovar comfort her 8-year-old brother Hector Mancha as he receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a pop up vaccine clinic down the street from the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge in Hidalgo, Texas, Thursday morning, Nov. 11, 2021. The family crossed into the United States to visit Tovar’s sister Brianda Tovar Rodriguez and decided to get the children vaccinated at the free walk-up clinic.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer / San Antonio Express-News

Armed demonstrators stand outside the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. The men gave their names as Crispy, left, who is with the Texas Guerrillas Militia, and Stack Shack, who is with the Boogaloo movement.
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Armed demonstrators stand outside the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. The men gave their names as Crispy, left, who is with the Texas Guerrillas Militia, and Stack Shack, who is with the Boogaloo movement.

Lisa Krantz, Staff / Staff photographer

Young migrants are seen on a raft pulled by a smuggler across the Rio Grande into the U.S. at a crossing point in Roma, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. Three different smuggling operations were seen crossing mostly Central American migrants at the site. One of the smugglers claimed he had around 180 people to cross.
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Young migrants are seen on a raft pulled by a smuggler across the Rio Grande into the U.S. at a crossing point in Roma, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. Three different smuggling operations were seen crossing mostly Central American migrants at the site. One of the smugglers claimed he had around 180 people to cross.

Jerry Lara / San Antonio Express-News

A Fair Avenue Apartments resident waits in a hallway for VIA buses to arrive to transport residents to the Grand Hyatt hotel downtown late Tuesday night after living without water and electricity for days in San Antonio on Feb. 16, 2021.
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A Fair Avenue Apartments resident waits in a hallway for VIA buses to arrive to transport residents to the Grand Hyatt hotel downtown late Tuesday night after living without water and electricity for days in San Antonio on Feb. 16, 2021.

Lisa Krantz, Staff / Staff photographer

Deidra Anderson, 57, a resident of Fair Avenue Apartments, waits with fellow residents on a VIA bus late Tuesday night to be transported to the Grand Hyatt hotel downtown on Feb. 16, 2021 in San Antonio. The apartments had been without electricity and water since Sunday except for the elevator, entrance and some hallways.
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Deidra Anderson, 57, a resident of Fair Avenue Apartments, waits with fellow residents on a VIA bus late Tuesday night to be transported to the Grand Hyatt hotel downtown on Feb. 16, 2021 in San Antonio. The apartments had been without electricity and water since Sunday except for the elevator, entrance and some hallways.

Lisa Krantz, Staff / Staff photographer

Herminia Rodriguez, 85, sits in her apartment at the Ernest C. Olivares Senior Community Residence shortly after electricity returned to the apartments in San Antonio on Feb. 16, 2021. The electricity was on for several hours Tuesday until the apartments lost it again around 5 p.m.
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Herminia Rodriguez, 85, sits in her apartment at the Ernest C. Olivares Senior Community Residence shortly after electricity returned to the apartments in San Antonio on Feb. 16, 2021. The electricity was on for several hours Tuesday until the apartments lost it again around 5 p.m.

Lisa Krantz, Staff / Staff photographer

Mariah, 8, dotes on her father, John Vargas Jr. as she sees him for the first time since his transplant when he arrived home in San Antonio on October 23, 2020.
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Mariah, 8, dotes on her father, John Vargas Jr. as she sees him for the first time since his transplant when he arrived home in San Antonio on October 23, 2020.

Lisa Krantz, Staff / Staff photographer

A disaster of a different kind continued to pummel Texas and much of the nation all throughout the year — the coronavirus and its delta and omicron variants.

Texas continued to experience thousands of deaths from COVID-19, with the greatest number of confirmed infections and the highest number of fatalities occurring in January and September, state health department data show.

And Texans began to hear more about children being sickened, hospitalized or dying from the virus, though pediatric patients have accounted for only a small percentage of the total COVID cases in Bexar County. Their close proximity to older people, such as grandparents, were still cause for concern.

Hospital systems were overwhelmed and near breakdown at various points throughout 2021 as patients sickened by COVID sought medical care. Health care workers have been bracing for another possible surge this winter.

The Texas Department of State Health Services warned in a news release Monday that the regional infusion centers in San Antonio and other cities have exhausted their supplies of sotrovimab, the monoclonal antibody effective against the COVID-19 omicron variant, due to a national shortage from the federal government that won’t be relieved until January.

1. February freeze fallout

People wait in line to enter the H-E-B at West Avenue and Blanco Road as a brisk snow falls on Thursday morning, Feb. 18, 2021.

People wait in line to enter the H-E-B at West Avenue and Blanco Road as a brisk snow falls on Thursday morning, Feb. 18, 2021.

Billy Calzada, Staff / Billy Calzada

On Feb. 15, a catastrophic winter freeze descended on Texas, blanketing San Antonio with 3 to 6 inches of snow and prompting outdoor temperatures here to bottom out at 9 degrees.

As customers’ demand for heat increased, the harsh winter storm froze power plants and wind turbines. The state’s grid operator — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — then enforced electrical blackouts to keep the grid from collapsing.

As a result, many Texans went without heat during single-digit temperatures. Some went without heat for days. Waterlines broke and flooded some homes, causing major damage. Some homeowners’ access to water was cut off completely. Some people died during the harsh conditions.

A committee appointed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg later concluded the city of San Antonio and its water and energy utilities failed to share enough information with the public and with each other, which created what one city council member called “a cascading disaster.”

Paula Gold-Williams, who was CPS Energy’s CEO at the time, called the winter storm “a horrific experience” for many people all across San Antonio and apologized for any part the utility played in the disaster.

In October, Gold-Williams announced she will leave CPS Energy in January. Rudy Garza was named CPS Energy’s interim president and CEO.

Although many Texans have been anxious about whether this winter will bring another harsh freeze, the National Weather Service said that is unlikely to occur again this winter.

Information from Express-News archives was used in this report.