2020 in Review: Masks symbolize pandemic, political turmoil

FROM THE HOME OFFICE, April 5 – The dateline, as the newspaper business refers to the town in all caps at the start of our stories, was changed today to reflect work in the coronavirus era.

Our newsroom has been dark. But our journalists are still at work from wherever they are.

Like all of you, our way of life changed on March 11.

And, again on March 25, when we were divided into essential and non-essential workers.

It has been a time of uncertainty and a time of disruption.

FROM THE HOME OFFICE, Jan. 3 – The above “lead” still holds mostly true today.

It was written just a few weeks into the pandemic’s arrival in Delaware. In a matter of days, we went through a whirlwind of change.

Indeed, 2020 was a year of uncertainty and a year of disruption.

We can add disappointment and division. Fatigue, too.

The message, for months now, has been to social distance.

And wear a mask.

A simple piece of fabric has become a long-term necessity and an aggravation.

Reviewing the front pages of 2020, those masks were ever present in news photos.

“The biggest challenge we have had is the tension between individual freedom and liberty and public health,” said Delaware Gov. John Carney during a briefing just before Christmas.

While there is hope with a new vaccine, there remains many who refuse to accept the science and the data.

“Many of those people have told me it was a hoax,” Gov. Carney said on Dec. 22. “Well, those 433 people that are in the hospital right now don’t think it is a hoax. Those 879 people who have passed away, their families don’t think it’s a hoax.

“It is not a hoax.”

***

Up until early March, Delaware was clicking along with its usual worries, aside from a rash of shootings, 19 in a stretch of four weeks. The first of a record eight Dover shooting fatalities in 2020 was 15-year-old Kainami Grant of Milford. He died hours after police responded to his 911 call from a dark Dover alley. No one has been arrested for killing him.

In the state capital, the usual workings of state government were in action. Gov. Carney was making pitches for gun control measures and clean water and touting a stronger spending process.

In late January, our front page led with news that Wesley College was weighing a merger. Next to it was news that Billie Eilish and Halsey would headline the Firefly Music Festival.

(Who knew that Delaware State University would later take over Wesley College and Firefly would be among the first to cancel because of the coronavirus?)

America was starting to get glimpses of the coronavirus. Delaware’s Division of Public Health announced it had tested a Kent County resident and alerted state agencies about potential spread from China. At that time, there were five known cases in the country.

In February, public health officials sent out alerts and urged planning. The greatest fear was that hospitals could become overwhelmed.

It was March 11 that we started to feel the impact, even if we never realized just how devastating it could become.

The state announced its first positive case.

Suddenly, the state high school basketball tournament was canceled. Gov. Carney declared a state of emergency, effective March 13.

Delawareans, as they would with an impending snowstorm, cleared store shelves of toilet paper. Cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer were very hard to find.

Schools were to shut down for two weeks, starting March 16.

In a matter of days, businesses and restaurants faced unprecedented restrictions. And, cancellations of events started rolling in.

“Today, we’re experiencing a profound shock to our sense of normalcy,” said Kara Odom Walker, then-secretary of Delaware’s Department of Health and Social Services, in a March 19 story.

There just 26 confirmed cases at the time. Just one in Kent County.

That edition featured a photo of a testing site with Bayhealth staffers, dressed in protective gowns and gear. It was in the parking lot of Dover International Speedway. Some days later, the speedway parking lot was filled with people in food distribution lines.

There would be no such crowds for racing there in 2020.

***

The governor issued a stay-at-home order on March 22.

Delawareans were divided into essential and non-essential workforces. Scrambling for information, the news easily became the most viewed story at DelawareStateNews.net.

A day later, Gov. Carney said schools would not reopen until May 15.

“It feels like the world is coming to an end,” said McKinley Brown after shopping in Dover.

The most severe effects emerged in April.

Nearly 62,000 Delawareans filed unemployment claims from mid-March through the first week of April. The figure was nearly double what the state had in all of 2019.

Nursing homes were hit hard. As of April 24, there were 100 coronavirus-related deaths in the state. More than half were in nursing homes, 19 were in the Genesis Healthcare Milford Center.

That same day, Gov. Carney said school buildings would remain closed for the rest of the year. Educators scrambled to put together online lessons.

By the end of April, Sussex County was deemed a “hot spot.” A wave of infections swept through the state’s poultry plants.

Reacting to updated federal guidance, Gov. Carney issued an order requiring masks that took effect on April 28.

***

Day by day, the numbers kept coming at us, sometimes clouding the impact this was having on people — especially those who could not be with loved ones at nursing homes and hospitals in their final hours.

At the start of May, Delaware neared 5,000 cases.

Most of us still did not really know what it was like to have COVID-19. For some people, it meant a loss of taste and smell for a while. For others, it meant not being able to breathe.

Ed Givens beat COVID-19.

“I was one scared puppy there for a couple of weeks,” the Georgetown resident said.

Struggling to breathe, he went from serious to critical condition. He was on a ventilator in Nanticoke Hospital in Seaford.

“I wasn’t even there 24 hours and I had double pneumonia and they had me on 100% oxygen,” he said.

By the first week of June, 388 Delawareans were said to have died from coronavirus-related complications. Of those, 247 were in long-term care centers.

Those in nursing homes have rarely had a chance to be with families.

Eugenia Thornton, whose husband Donovan F. Jagger was suffering from dementia in the Delaware Veterans Home, went five months without seeing him. In mid-August, she finally did, but he was mostly unresponsive.

“Who knows if not seeing my husband is the reason. He is rapidly declining,” Ms. Thornton said at the time. “Dementia nursing home residents are dying faster than normal. We know this from the Alzheimer’s Association. We will never know if visits from me could have kept him interested in food, in living, because he cannot speak. The guilt I feel for not visiting him is adding to my deep sadness of his impending death.

Mr. Jagger died Aug. 24.

***

In early May, cries for business relief grew louder — especially from a largely unmasked crowd on Legislative Mall.

Hundreds, some toting “All Jobs are Essential” and “End Tyranny” signs, chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A” after rally organizer Lisa Marie McCulley’s speech.

“Governor,” she said, “we demand that you reopen our state now.”

Unemployment had hit 15.9%.

The spread was slowing and testing efforts were expanding. On May 8, Gov. Carney said the state would begin to reopen on June 1.

That was not soon enough for many in the state.

The Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce called for it to be May 15 and beach businesses wanted to be open for Memorial Day.

Small businesses were crying foul about having to close. Yet, big box stores were open — and often had full parking lots.

Republican lawmakers pleaded with the governor to listen to the harm to businesses. “It is time to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” the lawmakers said in a letter.

Delaware moved to its second stage of reopening in mid-June and that is where we have remained, with some loosening and tightening of restrictions.

***

News of business reopening did not dominate Page 1 on the first of June.

Instead, it was the swift reaction to the death of George Floyd who died at hands of a police offer in Minneapolis.

Delaware saw rallies across the state with protesters carrying “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” signs.

“My hope today is to bring awareness to the injustice that is going on across America,” said Crystal Johnson at a rally in Seaford. “We see it. We feel it. And it was something about the recent one that really triggered, set everything on fire.”

The Delaware Legislative Black Caucus gathered on the steps of Legislative Hall and outlined a “Justice for All” agenda.

Among the proposals was House Bill 350, which bans the use of chokeholds by all law enforcement agencies in the state. The bill became law in August with Gov. Carney’s signature.

With an abbreviated General Assembly, not all of the measures were acted upon.

***

Spring seemed particularly odd for students and parents. Classes resumed online, but social lives did not.

For high school seniors, there would be no proms and no senior nights for athletes of the canceled spring season.

“I’m mostly worried about not having a graduation,” said Lake Forest valedictorian Maci Carter in early April. “If this continues to get worse, I know that we probably won’t have it. And it’s kind of scary because we’ve been working our entire career for this. The past 12 years, you’ve been working hard in school to get your diploma.”

Schools tried to figure out ways to make graduations memorable. How about those Dover High graduates who picked up diplomas in Victory Lane at Dover International Speedway?

They took laps around the Monster Mile — something NASCAR drivers could not do in a spring race.

Concerts were canceled, camps were closed.

Beaches had limitations. Who would have imagined tan lines from masks worn on our beaches?

The only big event that managed to go on in the summer was the Delaware State Fair.

Children, wearing masks along with the usual boots and jeans, showed pigs and goats. But concerts by Hank Williams Jr. and others were a no-go.

As summer dragged on, so did conversations about a return to school. Hybrid learning — sometimes learning in school, sometimes on a computer from their homes — has been central in this “next normal.” It put a spotlight on broadband access for many Delawareans.

In August, fourth-grade teacher Ada Todd said, “It’s almost like it’s their first year all over again. For every teacher I talk to, because we have to increase our skill set. … It’s a shift in education that might not go away. Even if COVID goes away.”

In the fall, we heard from teachers who were trying their best, sometimes crying out in exasperation.

In late October, the Delaware State News checked back with some teachers about the stress of remote learning. “Unequivocally, teachers are not OK,” said Wendy Turner, a past Delaware Teacher of the Year.

High school sports’ fall season was originally nixed. But the state’s athletic association came up with a plan, with all athletes wearing face coverings, to proceed. Last month, Sussex Central High became an unlikely football champion.

As the post-Thanksgiving surge became evident, Gov. Carney advised school buildings be closed around the holidays. Many kids will resume the hybrid approach on Jan. 11 following weeks of being in the “red” categories — signifying significant spread — in the state’s school scenario guidance chart.

***

As decisions were being made on a return to school in early August, a new challenge came to us from the south in the form of Tropical Storm Isaias.

The tornadoes it spawned led to the death of a Milford woman, who was surveying her property for damage. In Dover, Union Missionary Baptist Church and William Henry Middle School were condemned.

In November, the Capital School District board wrestled with the lack of action on the school.

“This was a catastrophe, and nobody recognizes it as a catastrophe,” board member Tony DePrima said. “So why is that? Because it’s been covered up by the pandemic. It has been — in other words, no pun intended — masked by the pandemic.”

***

In August, the national media’s attention turned to Wilmington where the stage was set for the Democratic Party’s hopes of ending President Donald Trump’s presidency.

Joe Biden, the former vice president and Delaware’s U.S. senator for decades, introduced California senator Kamala Harris as his running mate in the gym of A.I. du Pont High School.

Together, they walked out in black masks and greeted a small number of physically distanced reporters.

“So now I need to get to work pulling our nation out of these crises we find ourselves in,” Mr. Biden said. “Getting our economy back on track, uniting this nation, and yes, winning the battle for the soul of America.”

In the news locally, Gov. Carney said there were no plans to fully reopen the state.

His Republican opponent, Julianne Murray, criticized the governor for shutting down the state. “Fear is powerful, and we need to step back from that fear,” she said.

She and Republican U.S. House nominee Lee Murphy each said they disagreed with a national mask mandate.

“This is an infringement on people’s personal rights,” Mr. Murphy said. “I think we have to give people credit in our society to make their decisions.”

The developments of 2020 weighed heavily on the minds of voters. Decisions were based on handling of the coronavirus, the economy, the future of the U.S. Supreme Court, racial unrest, public safety and more.

Delaware saw strong reaction and participation in the coronavirus-related move to mail-in absentee voting. It led to a record number of votes.

At the same time, all these issues led to long lines of masked-up voters on Election Day.

In Delaware, President-elect Biden and the Democrats easily won.

Reviewing votes by district, President Trump and Republicans clearly had strong support through rural Kent County and Sussex County.

***

Here we are in a new year, still reeling, with 930 coronavirus-related deaths in 2020 and 400 people hospitalized on New Year’s Eve, as it has been the case since Dec. 15.

The vaccine has given us hope. But the big issues have not been resolved.

President-elect Biden said a few days ago that it will take time.

“We need to be honest — the next few weeks and months are going to be very tough, very tough for our nation,” he said. “Maybe the toughest during this entire pandemic.”

Click here to read the timeline of coronavirus developments in Delaware in 2020.

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