A rundown of the top stories of 2021


COVID-19 may have been the main headliner in all news outlets this year but it was not the only thing that happened in 2021. Amid all the furor, panic, anxiety, and fear caused by this pandemic that has dragged on for two years, other noteworthy events also managed to jostle for front-page space, claiming journalists’ and readers’ attention and surfacing through the COVID-19-related news cycle. Here and in no particular order, Saipan Tribune gives you a rundown of the top stories in the Commonwealth this year:

CNMI sees rise in community cases

On Oct. 28, three positive cases of COVID-19 within the community were identified through a collaboration between the CNMI Public School System, Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force, and the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. That ended the CNMI’s 217-day streak of zero community transmission that had stood at three deaths and 291 positive cases. As of writing, the CNMI is now in Week 10 of a rise in community cases of COVID-19, with total positive number of cases at 3,085 and 13 deaths. The CHCC reported that, since Oct. 28, there have been 2,794 new cases, 2,107 recoveries, 677 active cases, and 10 deaths of the cases identified. (Joshua Santos)

Fatal hit-and-run

A fatal hit-and-run left 20-year-old Sophia Demapan lifeless along the shoulder of Route 30 in Marpi, on the night of July 27.
Responding officers reported that Demapan had multiple lacerations and deformities on her body. In addition, the officers also noticed that she sustained multiple fractures and severe injuries to her head. Demapan was pronounced dead at CHC on July 28 by Dr. Bryan Strickland.
After over a week, on Aug. 8, 2021, the Department of Public Safety issued a warrant for the arrest of the alleged driver of the vehicle that struck Demapan. However, because the driver was a 17-year-old male, the driver was tried as a juvenile and his case was therefore closed to public, including to the family of the deceased.
The incident blew up on social media and a movement was launched called #JusticeForSophia in hopes of getting answers about the incident and for other hit-and-run cases that have gone cold through the years. (Kimberly B. Esmores)

‘Road to 80’

To boost the CNMI’s vaccination rate, government agencies and business partners came together to launch the marketing campaign “Road to 80,” with the target of reaching 80% of the CNMI’s eligible population being vaccinated against COVID-19. The campaign featured thousands of dollars in prizes given away weekly to lucky winners selected from a pool made up of the CNMI’s fully vaccinated population.
The campaign, which ran from July 12 to Aug. 28, began with a $500 raffle, then $1,000, $1,500, $2,000, and so on, and culminated in the announcement of winners of $2,500, $5,000, $15,000, a boat, and a 2020 Nissan Rogue Sport at the Taste of the Marianas.
Before the campaign, the CNMI was at 67% vaccinated. A little over a month and many prizes later, the CNMI reached 77%. The CNMI officially reached 80% vaccinated on Sep. 10, two weeks after Road to 80 ended, but the campaign played a huge part in getting the CNMI close. (Joshua Santos)

In-person, online, and in-person again at PSS

The CNMI Public School System began the 2021-2022 school year with student cohorts and talks of allowing schools with 80% of its eligible students vaccinated against COVID-19 to return to full in-person classes. However, with an announcement on Oct. 28, all PSS schools transitioned back to online learning.
On Oct. 28 PSS announced that two positive cases of COVID-19 were found through PSS’ school-based antigen testing. All PSS schools were closed for in-person classes for 10 days, originally setting a reopening date of Nov. 15. Before Nov. 15, the Board of Education voted to reschedule reopening to Nov. 29.
On Nov. 28, PSS decided to go with a staggered return to in-person classes based on schools’ COVID-19 screening/testing schedule. PSS returned to online instruction for two weeks from Dec. 6 to Dec. 23.
The BOE later voted to set Jan. 3, 2022, as the day all CNMI PSS schools will return to full in-person classes. (Joshua Santos)

Ascendant Democrats

The NMI Republican Party’s decades-old grip on the CNMI House of Representatives ended in January 2021 when representatives elected an independent lawmaker, Edmund S. Villagomez (Ind-Saipan) as speaker of the 22nd Legislature.
This happened after Rep. Ralph N. Yumul (R-Saipan) flipped his vote and broke the 10-10 tie during the fourth voting for the speakership, ending the three-day impasse in the longest House inauguration and organizational session.
Villagomez’s election as speaker completed the ascendance of the NMI Democratic Party. Some said the last time the Democratic Party controlled the House was in the 4th Legislature.
The House currently has nine Democrats, seven Republicans, and four independents. (Ferdie de la Torre)

$512M ARPA money

The CNMI government received in May 2021 the $481.9 million that was allocated to the Commonwealth under the American Rescue Plan Act. The ARPA money provides emergency funding for the ongoing COVID-19 emergency, replenishes lost government revenue due to the pandemic, and brings back jobs within the government that had been lost. Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig earlier stated that ARPA has different sections of funding and that the $481.0 million is the amount allocated for the CNMI under Section 602.
In June 2021, Atalig presented details of how the government plans to spend $512,076,165 million in ARPA funding—considered the largest one-time cash gift the federal government has ever given the CNMI so far.
Gov. Ralph DLG Torres said the ARPA funding will propel the CNMI to the 21st century. A total of $175 million in ARPA money was added to the $103.3 million general fund, bringing to $278.3 million the amount allocated for government operations in fiscal year 2022. (Ferdie de la Torre)

Rep. Blanco passes away

The untimely passing of Rep. Ivan A. Blanco (R-Saipan) on July 23, 2021, stunned the community. Police said Blanco, 45, just had lunch with his staff at the Aqua Resort Club in Achugao and, as they were leaving and were all in their vehicles, he rolled down his window and asked for assistance from a staff member. Blanco was guided out of his vehicle. An ambulance transported him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. Police said the medical report says the cause of death was “massive pulmonary embolism.”
Guam and others throughout Micronesia joined the CNMI in mourning his passing, many describing Blanco as a leader, statesman, a true diplomat, and a dedicated public servant.
Blanco’s death triggered a special election on Oct. 16, 2021, to fill the vacant House seat for Precinct 3. At the election, Corina L. Magofna (D-Saipan) easily defeated Grace “Pitu” Sablan Vaiagae of the Republican Party. (Ferdie de la Torre)

IPI license suspended

The Commonwealth Casino Commission board ordered the indefinite suspension of Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC’s gaming license on April 22, 2021, for violating the CCC’s five enforcement actions.
The same CCC board order directed IPI to pay $6.6 million in total penalty within six months, and pay immediately $15.5 million and $3.1 million in annual casino exclusive license fee and annual casino regulatory fee, respectively.
IPI, however, appealed to the Superior Court to challenge CCC board’s final order. As of yesterday, IPI has not paid any amount as its appeal is pending in court. IPI’s non-payment caused CCC to implement a budget cut, losing many employees due to terminations and the resignation of others.
Last September, CCC executive director Andrew Yeom filed five complaints against IPI, seeking the revocation of its IPI’s exclusive casino license for alleged unwillingness to comply with the CCC’s final order in five enforcement actions. (Ferdie de la Torre)

JGO investigates Torres

The House of Representatives Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee chaired by Rep. Celina R. Babauta (D-Saipan) started its investigation into Gov. Ralph DLG Torres’ expenditures of public funds and travels on Aug. 25, 2021.
As of yesterday, the JGO is not done yet with its investigation as the committee has yet to call in Finance Secretary David DLG Atalig to testify.
Last Dec. 14, the committee voted to hold Torres in contempt for not appearing before the committee. In explaining as to why he did not appear before the committee, Torres cited, among other reasons, that the Executive Branch is a separate and equal branch of the government under the Commonwealth Constitution.
Torres then sued the JGO Committee in Superior Court. Last Dec. 20, Babauta introduced House Resolution 22-14 impeaching Torres for alleged commission of felonies, corruption, and neglect of duty. (Ferdie de la Torre)

NMC master plan OK’d

In a meeting on Aug. 17, the Northern Marianas College Board of Regents approved the college’s seven-phase facilities master plan. The first phase is set to begin with the construction of a new student center, a project that is expected to break ground in 2022.
The master plan also includes projects to improve and develop Chalan Monsignor Road, and plans to work with key public and private sector stakeholders to create a “college town” environment around NMC’s As Terlaje campus. Facilities master plans for NMC’s Tinian and Rota campuses are in the works as well. (Joshua Santos)

Arago passes away

Glicerio “Eli” Del Mundo Arago, who was the Philippine honorary consul for the CNMI and publisher of Saipan Tribune, passed away on Nov. 24 at the Guam Regional Medical City in Guam. He was 69 years old.
In a joint statement from the Philippine Honorary Consulate for the CNMI and the Philippine Consulate General Agaña, Guam, it was shared that Arago died of complications from a stroke.
A public viewing and funeral Mass for Arago was held at the Mount Carmel Cathedral on Dec. 4. (Joshua Santos)

Travel bubble

To kick-start the CNMI’s tourism industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the CNMI government, in collaboration with the Marianas Visitors Authority launched a South Korean travel bubble under MVA’s Travel Investment Resumption Plan, or TRIP.
The program, which officially kicked off on July 24, was originally supposed to end around September but has since been extended twice—first through the end of December, then again through the end of January.
The CNMI’s sole travel bubble at the moment started with 92 passengers but the number of passengers has risen as Korea entered its fall and winter season.
To date, the program has garnered approximately a little over 7,000 participants despite the high volume of cancellationsby the end of November due to the spike in the omicron variant.
The initial goal was to serve about 8,000 participants but about 27% cancelled as result of omicron. (Kimberly B. Esmores)


After over a year of disbursing benefits to those who lost their jobs or whose jobs were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the CNMI Department of Labor officially concluded its Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and Federal Pandemic Unemployment compensation in October.
The CNMI DOL officially stopped accepting PUA claims last Oct. 4. However, the official expiration of benefit disbursement will be June 2022; any unspent funds after June 2022 will be returned to USDOL. Currently, around 384 claims are waiting to be adjudicated.
Since the program launched in June 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor has allocated roughly $700 million specifically for unemployment assistance in the CNMI. To date, over $260 million has been used so far. The funds were disbursed to a total of 16,788 applicants since June 2020. (Kimberly B. Esmores)

SMA suspends flights

After a dispute regarding the Commonwealth Ports Authority’s new method of assessing airport usage fees, the CNMI’s sole interisland air carrier, Star Marianas Air Inc., suspended flights for nearly two weeks.
However, after coming to a compromise on a temporary resolution, which includes the suspension of airport usage fees, Star Marianas resumed its flights on a charter basis on Dec. 16.
After a conversation between Star Marianas and the Office of the Governor regarding subsidy for these flights and mediating the ongoing dispute between Star Marianas and CPA, Star Marianas resumed its scheduled flight service starting Dec. 22.
Currently, CPA is applying with the U.S Department of Transportation to provide federal subsidy for airlines who provide interisland air service to the CNMI. (Kimberly B. Esmores)

IPI auction OK’d

After years of legal proceedings, the U.S. District Court for the NMI granted USA Fanter Corp.’s request to auction Imperial Pacific International (CNMI) LLC’s assets to satisfy a court judgment of $2.1 million back in July.
On Oct. 28, Clear Management Ltd, a company headed by Silver Heritage Group co-founder Tim Shepherd, was appointed to serve as receiver in the auction of IPI’s assets to administer, collect, or sell any casino gaming property IPI owns and to do any other acts to satisfy the judgment.
In November, the court allowed other IPI creditors to “piggy back” on the receivership to satisfy their respective lawsuits against IPI.
However, on Dec. 14, IPI posted a $2.45 million “supersedeas” bond as surety on behalf of IPI as principal to stay the receivership. On Dec. 19, the District Court granted IPI’s request to extend the stay on the limited receivership again. (Kimberly B. Esmores)

Nine firefighters sacked

The Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services terminated the employment of nine firefighters for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19. In turn, the nine firefighters sued the department and filed a preliminary injunction for reinstatement. Both were dismissed and denied. (Kimberly B. Esmores)

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