Some semblance of life pre-lockdowns resumed for most adults after COVID-19 vaccines became widely available in the United States during the second year of the pandemic. As deaths dropped due to vaccines while cases rose, the focus of COVID prevention shifted from lockdowns to vaccine mandates and masking. As of December, the U.S. death toll stands at 800,000.
On the politics front, a new administration inherited not only the pandemic but all of the public pitfalls that came with it. The Biden administration took over the reins of governance, but not before loyalists to Donald Trump shocked the White House – and the world – with an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Shocking tragedies shook communities emerging from COVID. Some were manmade: a building collapse in Miami on June 24 that killed 98 people; a car that plowed into young and old alike at a Wisconsin holiday parade; shootings in Georgia spas, an Indianapolis FedEx, a Colorado supermarket, a San Jose rail yard and a Michigan high school that ripped victims from their loving families.
Others were the tragic results of natural disasters: a cold snap that forced millions of Texans to live without heat or electricity; wildfires that continued to burn through hundreds of acres of California land; and a series of tornadoes that leveled towns across six states within a weekend.
A surreal scene unfolded in New York on the very first day of 2021. Confetti still rained down on Times Square as it does every January 1, but this time without throngs of visitors kissing as the clock struck midnight, or cheers welcoming a brand new year.
Time Square was completely empty.
At this point of the pandemic, public spaces still remained closed off to the public as a preventative measure against the COVID spread, and festivities were not an exception. It would take months for the public to feel comfortable enough to head out, en masse, to rediscover parts of themselves that existed outside of their homes or immediate bubbles.
The coronavirus vaccine first became available to all U.S. adults in April following months of measured rollouts for the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and those who work with the public.
The vaccine did not become the silver bullet against the pandemic the public may have hoped for. By June, two months after the mass rollout, nearly all COVID deaths in the U.S. were among the unvaccinated. But the emergence of the delta variant in late July, a strain of the coronavirus twice as contagious as the original, reversed formerly dropping case numbers and death tolls.
As of December, delta remains the predominant COVID strain in the United States, though the focus is also on the heavily mutated omicron variant that first appeared stateside in December.
Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Ramp Up in the U.S.
A spate of hate crimes against Asian Americans morphed into a year-long crisis for the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders community. The crisis came to widespread attention after two mass shootings killed mostly Eastern Asian women and Sikhs within the span of a month.
A 21-year-old gunman killed eight people at three Atlanta-area spas, citing a sex addiction as his motivation. Another 19-year-old gunman killed eight people at an Indianapolis FedEx, first firing randomly in the parking lot, then going into the building.
Both incidents, among other brutal attacks against elderly Asian Americans caught on camera, sparked the Stop Asian Hate national movement, which increased scrutiny on how the government tracked Asian hate crimes and incidents on the federal and municipal level as well as calling for increased awareness of and against hate crimes. Joe Biden signed an anti-Asian hate crimes bill into law in May.
Trials, Convictions and Acquittals
Several high-profile trials revealed the fates of police officers and civilians accused of killing Black Americans or in protests that stemmed from such conflict.
Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer seen on camera with three others pinning George Floyd to the ground until he died, was convicted on April 20 of murder and manslaughter and sentenced to 22.5 years in prison. Chauvin pled guilty to further federal charges on Dec. 15, admitting to depriving Floyd of his rights for the first time.
In November, three men charged with the shooting and murder of another Black man were convicted of murder. Greg McMichael, his son Travis and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan were found guilty for the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery as Arbery was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. The three will be sentenced in January.
Over in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse cried as the jury read "not guilty," one count after another. He was accused of shooting three people during a protest sparked by the Kenosha police shooting and killing 29-year-old Jacob Blake, who was Black.
Rittenhouse, 17, was acquitted of all five standing charges Nov. 19.
In New York, all eyes are on the multi-week trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, a former British socialite and accused madame of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who stands accused of sexually abusing and trafficking minors.
Four women accused Maxwell and Epstein of grooming and sexually abusing them as teenagers in Epstein's Florida, New York, New Mexico and London properties. Maxwell's defense plans to argue that she is being prosecuted in place of the deceased Epstein.
Climate, Natural Disasters and Fatal Accidents
An extreme cold snap plunged Texas into several inches of snow and freezing temperatures mid-February, killing 210 people from exposure and possible carbon monoxide poisoning. It also overwhelmed the state's power grid, forcing millions of Texans to live without heat or electricity in the midst of single-digit days.
The disaster snared Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) into a public relations nightmare after the Cruz family were found making plans to stay in Cancun in the middle of a storm that killed hundreds of his constituents. The senator would call the trip "a mistake."
In California, extreme droughts feeding into massive wildfires continue to plague the state. The Dixie Fire that broke out on July 14 became the state's single-largest wildfire in recorded history, destroying nearly 900 homes and buildings. It was just one of approximately 100 wildfires burning in Western states at the time.
At the same time, California was also suffering from a historic drought that left the state scraping the bottoms of reservoirs for water. Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration blamed a lack of water conservation as part of the problem, noting that voluntary water consumption was cut back by just 1.5% instead of the targeted goal of 15%.
In the southeast region of the U.S., a deadly system of tornadoes, including a "long-track" twister, devastated communities across six states within one December weekend – killing at least 88 people. More than 100 people remain missing.
Photos Show Devastated Communities in Aftermath of Deadly Tornadoes
In Miami, the disaster was manmade: a condominium partially collapsed overnight to the horror of neighbors and residents of the building that survived. At least 98 people were killed during the collapse that lasted just minutes.
"I just can't put into words: it looks like a bomb hit, it looks like something in one of these Third World countries that just literally collapsed, like a pancake straight down, and there's just an incredible pile of rubble," a horrified witness said.
While gun violence was at an all-time low in 2020 due to the lockdowns, the trend jumped back up in 2021. Mass shootings once again became a feature of daily living, with incidents flaring up in the workplace, in supermarkets and at schools.
The shooting at a Colorado supermarket on March 22 came one week after eight were killed in various spas in Georgia, but three weeks before eight more would be shot and killed at an Indianapolis FedEx. This time, 10 were killed during a shooting at the King Soopers supermarket in Boulder, Colorado. One of the victims was Boulder police officer Eric Talley, who was also a father of seven.
In May, nine people were killed at a San Jose rail yard when a 57-year-old employee opened fire, killing many longtime employees of the transit agency that ran the yard. The victims ranged from 29-years-old to 63.
The ex-wife of the gunman told the Associated Press that her ex-husband had a bad temper and claimed he wanted to kill people at work.
In December, a 15-year-old boy shot and killed four classmates at his Michigan high school with a gun purchased by his father. The gunman was arrested and charged as an adult with murder and terrorism. His parents were also arrested.
It was the deadliest school shooting since the 2018 Santa Fe, Texas, high school shooting.
In a move that blindsided Wall Street financiers, an anonymous online community of rookie investors banded together to target hedge funds and other deep-pocketed short-sellers – investors betting against the success of certain companies and making a profit from company losses.
Users of r/WallStreetBets caused GameStop stocks to spike by 1,500% in two weeks, causing stocks to jump from $39 to $347 per share in a "short squeeze" against more financially established short sellers. The move to target previously failing stocks like Wall Street and AMC alarmed Wall Street, with one financier calling the trend of targeting short sellers via the internet a potential destabilization of "the overall market and the confidence in the market."
Space tourism has been a focus for business titans with the funds to fly themselves (and others) into space. Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson edged out Amazon boss Jeff Bezos to fly to space on his company's test flight on July 10. Bezos launched himself and three others on his Blue Origin shuttle 10 days after Branson, bringing with him the youngest passenger to ever fly in space at 18.
Elon Musk did not compete to fly to space himself, but his SpaceX company did make its own distinction for launching the world's first all-civilian crew into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket in September.
Actor William Shatner delighted Star Trek fans everywhere when he launched into space in October with Blue Origins in a flight that lasted just over 10 minutes. The Star Trek actor also became the oldest passenger to ever launch to space with the flight.
Down on Earth, Joe Biden made a new national holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth became a federal holiday after Biden signed a bill into law on June 19.
The Biden administration took over the reins of the country on Jan. 20, but not before a politically tumultuous first two weeks of the new year.
Protesters, some bearing flags with former President Donald Trump's name, stormed the U.S. Capitol. During a political rally shortly before, Trump told loyalists at a D.C. speech that "we will never concede." At the time, a joint session between the House and Senate had convened to count and affirm electoral college votes.
Four died after the massive crowd overran the Capitol in the middle of the joint session, overcoming Capitol police and eventually breaking into the Senate chamber. Congress affirmed Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election later that night.
The riot bought outrage among D.C. politicians and everyday Americans expecting an uneventful, if tense, session. It also impacted Trump personally during the last days of his presidency. Trump senior advisers like former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and former Special U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland Mick Mulvaney resigned the day after the riots, among a half-dozen other administration officials. Trump was then impeached for the second time in office over his role in the riot – a first for any U.S. president.
Biden was later sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.
Kamala Harris, the vice president of the United States, made headlines when she was slated to be the first woman, the first Black and the first Asian American veep.
The firsts have only continued during the first year of her tenure: she and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi became the first women to share the stage with the president during a presidential address on April 28. Joe Biden had greeted the two of them – "Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President" – then noted that "no president has ever said those words."
Harris even briefly became the first female president of the United States, becoming acting president for an hour and 25 minutes while Biden underwent a colonoscopy on Nov. 19.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who became an adored household name for his presence during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, quickly became a political star on a national scale before falling from grace. A bombshell report released by New York attorney general Leticia James accused Cuomo of sexually harassing 11 women, leading to his resignation a week after.
His brother, the CNN host Chris Cuomo, was fired from the network for his role as an adviser and defense for the former governor.
The year 2021 was a good one for Tampa.
Not only did the Buccaneers overtake the defending champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, for the Lombardi trophy during Super Bowl LV, but the city's second Stanley Cup win in a row proves that lightning does, indeed, strike twice. The two Stanley Cup wins and the Super Bowl makes three championship wins for Tampa within an 11-month span.
Super Bowl LV also marked the seventh Super Bowl ring for NFL star Tom Brady, as well as his fifth Super Bowl MVP win.
Atlanta took home their own win after the Braves defeated the Houston Astros 7-0 during the 2021 World Series. It was the first World Series win for both the Braves and Atlanta since 1995.
Halfway around the world, the United States had a strong showing during the Tokyo Olympics, winning 113 medals across all categories to become first in both gold medal and overall medal counts for Tokyo. Caeleb Dressel became the newest swimmer to watch for when the 24-year-old won five gold medals in a single Olympics – the fifth American to do so in the last 50 years. Suni Lee, Athing Mu and Sydney McLaughlin joined the likes of Allyson Felix, Kevin Durant and Simone Biles as new household Olympian names after their stunning performances in gymnastics and track and field.
Biles briefly surprised fans and audiences when she withdrew from the gymnastics team finals and all-around competitions midway into the Olympics. Biles cited her mental health as her reason to withdraw, fearing she could cause herself serious physical harm.
Tiger Woods had his own win this year when he announced his return to the 2021 PNC Championship with his son, Charlie – months after a February car crash fractured his right leg. "I'm very grateful that someone upstairs was taking care of me," he said of his recovery.
Chloé Zhao Makes Oscar History
Director Chloé Zhao made history at the Oscars when she became one of seven women to be nominated for "Best Director," one of two female nominees for the same "Best Director" title in the same year, then finally, the first woman of color to win "Best Director." Zhao took home the coveted award for her work in "Nomadland."
Celebrity Couples and Breakups
Is it 2003? Bennifer 2.0 had some of us reaching for our crop tops and velour tracksuits after Affleck and J.Lo made their so-old-it's-new-again romance official at the Venice International Film Festival. The two had ended other high-profile relationships before rekindling their flame: he from rising movie star Ana de Armas and she from baseball pro Alex Rodriguez.
Kim Kardashian did her own moving on when the reality television star, beauty mogul and budding lawyer started dating SNL star Pete Davidson. The two had connected when Kardashian hosted Saturday Night Live and appeared in an Aladdin-theme skit with Peterson during the show.
News of the surprising couple came in the middle of Kim K's divorce from Kanye West after six years of marriage and four kids.
In Brooklyn, R&B artist R. Kelly was found guilty on all counts at his sex-abuse trial by a federal jury. He was accused of sexual exploitation of a child, kidnapping, bribery and sex trafficking.
Six people claimed the actor, known for his 1996 hit "I Believe I Can Fly," had abused minors of both sexes for over two decades. Victims of Kelly's included the former singer Aaliyah, whom Kelly infamously married at the age of 15.
He will be sentenced on May 4, 2022.
On June 30, former "Smallville" actress Allison Mack was sentenced to three years in prison for her role in luring women into the NXIVM cult to become sex slaves for the group's leader, Keith Raniere. Mack, who was arrested days after Raniere in 2018, was allegedly part of his inner circle that acted as a "master" for the women she lured in.
“I am sorry to those of you that I brought into NXIVM," she wrote. "I am sorry I ever exposed you to the nefarious and emotionally abusive schemes of a twisted man.”
On the same day as Mack's sentencing, Bill Cosby flashed a victory sign after state courts overturned his 2018 sexual assault conviction. According to the courts, prosecutors had violated a current agreement that prevented him from being charged in the same case.
Cosby, 83, had served two of his three-to-10 year sentence.
Loyalists of the #FreeBritney movement, as well as Britney Spears, finally got their wish in November when a judge ended the pop queen's 14-years long conservatorship. Spears had testified at a June hearing that she was forced to take medicine and work against her will under the conservatorship run largely by her father, Jamie Spears.
A misfire from a prop gun held by actor Alec Baldwin injured the director and killed the cinematographer on a movie set in New Mexico, sparking concern of set safety among industry insiders.
Halyna Hutchins, 42, was a celebrated cinematographer who served as director of photography for "Rust," which Baldwin was filming for, as well as the 2020 movie "Archenemy."
In Houston, the Astroworld music festival became an uncontrolled crowd surge that killed 10 people from compression asphyxia. One of the victims was 9-year-old Ezra Blount.
Travis Scott, who founded Astroworld and was performing during the surge, was widely criticized for his performance and reaction during the tragedy. Both Scott and Drake, who appeared halfway through the set, have been hit with a $750 million lawsuit on behalf of the victims.
Myanmar's Military Overthrows Country's Leader in Coup
The February military coup that ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has only worsened conflicts between the military junta and Myanmar civilians calling for her reinstatement in the 10 months since the military came to power.
The United States, Canada and United Kingdom put sanctions on the junta in December, the same week after a special court sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi to four years in prison. State Secretary Antony Blinken said the United States was looking at "additional steps and measures" to take against the regime.
Massive Cargo Ship Becomes Stuck in Suez Canal, Contributing to Supply Chain Woes
As if the pandemic-led global supply chain snarl could not get any worse. A stranded mega container ship Ever Given blocked a major shipping artery in March when it became stuck in Egypt's Suez Canal for nearly a week.
While the internet found its chance to joke about the ship, which became stuck due to a sandstorm, shipping managers and logistics workers were not laughing at the situation. The canal sees $3 billion worth of cargo daily as the only other option for shipping vessels to get from east to west and vice versa is around the southern tip of Africa.
Stampede at Israeli Religious Festival Kills 44 People
A religious festival turned into a scene of mass tragedy when crowds of people became stuck at a narrow tunnel-like passage that acted as a bottleneck to the tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attending the festival in Israel. The incident happened during Lag BaOmer, which was also the first legally held mass gathering in the country since the start of the pandemic.
Local media had estimated the crowd at around 100,000 people.
Pro-Palestinian Protests Roil U.S. Cities Over Gaza City Conflict
Pro-Palestinian rallies sprung up in U.S. cities in May after weeks of fighting among the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas that killed 12 Israelis and 230 Palestinians within two weeks. Pro-Palestinian advocates, spurred by allies in the Black Lives Matter movement as well as their position against Donald Trump's close friendship with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, staged massive day-long rallies in cities like New York, Houston and Los Angeles to call for an end to the airstrikes.
Afghanistan Falls to the Taliban After Decades of American Occupation
Shortly after the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, the Taliban rapidly seized control of the country for the second time in the nation's history.
The regime overwhelmed Afghanistan's cities within a matter of days before it seized control of Kabul on Aug. 16 with the collapse of the Afghan government.
The United States completed its withdrawal on Aug. 31.
Editing by Andrew V. Pestano.