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Remembering a year unlike any other

Pandemic, wildfire highlight unprecedented time

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  • 14 min to read

A year like no other began like so many others. The first mustard flowers began their revival and Coastsiders geared up for Farm Day, Dream Machines and other rites of spring. But the coronavirus pandemic, a more ominous force than even the largest of king tides, was rolling in.

Today we look back at what happened next. 2020 was a year of loss and pain, of survival and hope. 

As we took shelter from the invisible threat of a global virus, normal life was put on hold. School and work moved online, and timeless Coastside events were canceled or postponed. Our frontline workers kept grocery stores and hospitals running. Relationships were tested as “safety” became relative. Our local businesses played a debilitating game of cat-and-mouse as restrictions ebbed and flowed. Month after month, there was no abatement from the disaster.

Just as it looked like San Mateo County had finally “flattened the curve,” deadly wildfires tore through the region, uprooting generations of homes and families. Then the third and most deadly surge of the virus was upon us, and life shuttered once more. 

Still, every day, the sun rose over the hills and set beyond the buoys. Nonprofits stepped in to support those without an income. Coastsiders went on grocery runs for their neighbors and sewed masks in their living rooms. From the relative safety of our cars, we celebrated birthdays and graduations. In a record-breaking election, the first-ever Latino candidate was elected to City Council.

Who would have predicted that Seton Medical Center, saved by the county in early February, would prove critical in our local fight against COVID-19? Or that a national racial justice reckoning would spur the largest Coastside demonstration in memory at the jetty and a Black Lives Matter mural adorning City Hall? Or that a years-long battle over teachers’ wages would finally be won? Or that a police shooting on our very own Main Street would bring home important questions of police use of force?

As the year comes to a close, California — which for so long avoided the worst of the pandemic — has now surpassed 2 million COVID-19 cases.

2020 has been a year of growth for the Coastside. And with vaccines beginning to circulate, Coastsiders enter the new year with some hope. But first a look back. Turn to Page 3A for a review of the important mileposts along this difficult road. 

 

 

January

City approves wage hike to $15 an hour

Some businesses concerned about minimum wage increases
Rocket Farms expressed concern over the city's plan to increase minimum wage ahead of the state schedule. Kent Hwang/ Review 

The Half Moon Bay City Council set the city’s minimum wage at $15 an hour by Jan. 1, 2021, two years ahead of the state’s schedule. Significant opposition came from large agricultural employer Rocket Farms and other local businesses, pushing the originally proposed timeline back by six months.

“Latino families, farmworkers and food servers are the backbone of our community, and they are the last ones to get raises. One year is a long time for our families to continue to wait.”

— Belinda Arriaga, founder of the Half Moon Bay nonprofit Ayudando Latinos a Soñar

 

February

First coronavirus cases are reported in Bay Area

After COVID-19 cases began to appear in the single digits in California, public health officials started to get serious about a possible outbreak. N95 masks flew off the shelves at local hardware stores, health screenings began at airports, and those returning from China were asked to stay home from school and work.

"Our health care facilities are operating normally, though with heightened awareness.”

— San Mateo County Health Officer Scott Morrow

 

 

March

County saves Seton hospitals

After years of financial turmoil and with a shutdown of the hospital looming, San Mateo County Board of Supervisors pledged $20 million to help a prospective buyer purchase the hospital network, including the Moss Beach skilled nursing facility at Seton Coastside.

“This does give a second lifeline. We know this hospital is so important to the hospital ecosystem in San Mateo County.”

— David Canepa, San Mateo County supervisor who represents the residents of Daly City

Schools close as virus begins to spread

Coastside schools shut down in mid-March after the first known exposures to the virus were reported to school officials. Most school events were canceled or indefinitely postponed as teachers and staff scrambled to get technology, food and resources to students at home for remote learning.

“We are operating as a school, but in a very different capacity. ... Now it's not going to be perfect. We’re going to learn a heck of a lot over the next few weeks on how to adjust learning.”

— John Nazar, Half Moon Bay High School Principal

Coastside rites of spring are canceled

Dream Machines, Little League and the Farm Day luncheon were among the first events that fell victim to fears about allowing large crowds during a pandemic. Little did Coastsiders know that this was just the beginning of a year without Coastside traditions.

"It’s super big locally for sure, but I keep thinking about the bigger picture (and) all the economic fallout going down and (it) is gonna be astounding. Silver linings: hopefully (this) may re-prioritize things with our fellow humans to possibly be more thoughtful, kind, and, of course, clean, but also spur more volunteerism and community participation with the additional time many will have on their hands."

— Tim Beeman, CEO of Miramar events, who helps organize Dream Machines and many events across the Peninsula.

 

Residents begin to shelter in place

The first county orders to stay at home went into effect March 17, shuttering local businesses, workplaces and schools. Residents flocked to grocery stores to stock up on the essentials and reached out to their neighbors to help. County health officials were warned to stay six feet apart from one another and avoid unnecessary travel.

samtrans17
The normally full morning SamTrans Route 17 bus makes its way south through Devil’s Slide on Monday with barely a soul aboard.

“The biggest sense of peace of mind and comfort right now is that we’re not alone.”

— Leslie Meyer, Coastside resident

 

 

April

Mask mandate begins

First recommended, then mandated, Coastsiders began masking up before going out in public. As more information about the method of community transmission of the pandemic was uncovered, especially asymptomatic spread, face coverings became a critical tool in stopping the spread. N95 and surgical masks were in limited supply and initially reserved for health care workers.

“Wearing face coverings helps protect others from exposure.”

— Dr. Scott Morrow, San Mateo County health officer

Coastsiders learned to isolate
For many, 2020 brought a feeling of isolation. 

 

Restrictions extended through spring

With COVID-19 continuing to spread throughout the state and county, local health officers worked together to extend the shelter-in-place order, and later in the month, to keep schools closed for the remainder of the spring semester. They were concerned about underestimating the spread of the disease and using extreme caution to guide decisions. In the county, a field hospital was established at the San Mateo Event Center, and Seton Hospital began accepting COVID-19 patients.

“Hospitalizations have leveled, but more work is needed to safely reopen our communities. Prematurely lifting restrictions could easily lead to a large surge in cases.”

— Statement from seven Bay Area counties on April 27.

Local businesses feel pandemic toll

Hair salons, restaurants and gyms were among the businesses that found making ends meet harder than ever. Few could open safely, and even fewer were seeing regular customers. Some turned to government relief through county and federal loans; others started GoFundMe pages asking for help to weather the storm.

“The reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of people like me in the country all looking for the same help.”

— Jodie Davis Miller, owner of FIT Studio in Half Moon Bay

City faces budget crisis

After the pandemic decimated tourism revenue, the city of Half Moon Bay projected an eight-figure deficit in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. To make up some of the shortfall, the city considered defunding capital projects, halted spending and declared a freeze on hiring.

“We are in a dire situation. There’s no doubt about that. And we’re looking at everything in terms of cuts.”

— City Manager Bob Nisbet

High school athletes miss spring season

This spring was supposed to be senior athletes’ time to shine. Instead, the pandemic sidelined the season, suspending all sporting events for the academic year. For some, it was a lost shot at impressing recruiters and leaving a hometown legacy. For others, it was simply another heartbreak to miss the closing innings alongside lifelong friends and teammates.

“We were really sad because we’re a tight-knit team.”

— Kendall Mansukhani, Half Moon Bay High School track and field athlete

May

Residents, businesses find some relief

By early May, loans began to trickle in for many local businesses, offering much-needed relief for what had become months of closure. Some residents also received stimulus checks in the mail, but undocumented residents were largely left out of government relief. Instead, they turned to local nonprofits and county funds for aid.

Together and apart
Emily Cooke, left, and Maggie Stack found a creative way to spend time together, albeit separated by a pane of glass. Photo courtesy Electra Field

“We just want to make sure that undocumented workers get support through our system.”

— Rita Mancera, Puente de la Costa Sur executive director

Deputies shoot and kill woman on Main Street

San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputies killed a troubled woman in a shocking encounter downtown. Sandra Harmon was armed with a rifle and carrying alcohol when concerned witnesses called 911. When she did not comply with orders, deputies shot her in a restaurant parking lot. She later died in the hospital. Harmon was remembered by her family as loving and struggling with her mental health.

Deadly shooting
Sandra Harmon was shot and killed by San Mateo County Sheriff's deputies who responded after she was seen carrying a gun through downtown.

“To everyone she was the sweetest woman in the world. She was definitely a peaceful person, but she was scared.”

— Willow Grace, Harmon’s daughter

 

Fourth of July, Pumpkin Festival canceled

The Coastside’s biggest annual events met their fate in 2020, and by late May were officially off. The loss was not only a blow to family tradition but also a blow to local nonprofits and artists. The annual Coastside Gives online fundraiser provided a well-timed boost, while nonprofits hustled to make ends meet and still provide critical services and resources to local families and students.

"The cancellation of these much-loved community events is sad and unfortunate for the city, our residents and businesses, and the many visitors who eagerly look forward to these festivities each year.”

— Adam Eisen, Half Moon Bay mayor

Surfers Beach Protest
Residents congregate at Surfers Beach during a Black Lives Matter protest. Photo courtesy Brian McDevitt

 

 

June

Residents support Black Lives Matter movement

As civil rights demonstrations erupted nationally in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, residents up and down the San Mateo County coast came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. At demonstrations in Half Moon Bay, El Granada and across the South Coast, hundreds of Coastsiders raised signs and kneeled in solidarity throughout the summer. Many Coastsiders saw the moment as an opportunity to take a closer look at policing practices and justice for people of color in their own community.

"Half Moon Bay is a small-town community that we are proud to be a part of. We want to show our support and stand up for racial justice, equal opportunity and a sustainable future for all. "

— Thomas Agramonte, Coastside resident and co-organizer of an early June demonstration in Half Moon Bay.

County institutes curfew amid unrest

For two nights in early June, San Mateo County set a curfew from 8:30 p.m. to 5 a.m., prohibiting residents from going out for anything other than essential reasons. The order was in response to nationwide civil unrest and specific threats about looting and property damage aimed at sites across the county, public officials said. No incidents were reported on or near the Coastside.

“The county takes our residents’ civil liberties extremely seriously and we want to protect their right to peacefully demonstrate over the heartbreaking and preventable death of George Floyd and other violent acts in our nation. However, we also take their safety seriously, and this order is a tool to help prevent looting and civil unrest by those who would take advantage of this highly emotional and tragic period of time.”

— Mike Callagy, county manager

High school seniors make best of it

Unprecedented times called for new traditions and ceremonies. In June, high school seniors celebrated the end of an era, complete with drive-in ceremonies and masked speeches. Despite canceled proms and no real last day of school, graduation day was one to remember for a class that persevered through a year like no other.

“I firmly believe we will all continue to pursue our dreams no matter what’s in our way.”

— Rori Skinner, Class of 2020 Pescadero High School graduate

 

City examines policing practices, budget

Amid a national conversation, the city of Half Moon Bay said it would take a closer look at its $3.5 million contract with the county Sheriff’s Office. Residents called for a shift in resources toward mental health cases, and the city opted to create a committee to vet the contract.

“I am not so sure we are in a position to defund, but maybe the word is ‘re-imagine.’ Reimagine how we might implement our public safety policies. I will play a role in this locally.”

— Debbie Ruddock, Half Moon Bay Council member

Back in business on the Coastside

For the first time since mid-March closures, local businesses were allowed to reopen so long as they followed public health restrictions. For hair salons, gyms and restaurants, it was a lifeline after months with little to no income. But many residents worried about the public health consequences of the reopening and how to balance welcoming critical tourism while staying safe.

“We want to be sure people feel safe and encourage people to go to businesses when enough things have opened up. The ‘Coast is Open’ will roll out in such a way that it is beneficial to businesses without sacrificing people’s health.”

— Krystlyn Giedt, Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Bureau CEO and president

July

Fourth proves a dud

With local COVID-19 cases on the rise, health officials asked residents and visitors to stay home over the Fourth of July holiday. The city closed beaches and parking lots to deter large crowds. There was no parade or fireworks, and fewer visitors to the coast, but some Coastsiders found safe ways to celebrate with car parades and street art.

“It was a much quieter weekend, but we want our out-of-towners to know we welcome them back at another time to enjoy the coastline.”

— Jessica Blair, Half Moon Bay Director of Communications

 

Schools announce remote start

After a series of rowdy school board meetings, some of which attracted hundreds of Coastsiders, both of the coast’s public school districts settled on a remote start for fall learning. They each developed reopening plans based on community, teacher and administrator input that was contingent on local health conditions. Also on the chopping block this fall was sports, as no school-sanctioned competitions were to be allowed.

School Reopening
An empty classroom sits idle at Manuel F. Cunha Intermediate School in Downtown Half Moon Bay on July 10. Photo by Adam Pardee.

“We have to remember to be flexible.”

— Leticia Bhatia, CUSD assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction

 

 

August

First day of virtual school

Coastside kids came back to class for a first day of school unlike any other. Backpacks were traded in for loaned Chromebooks, and makeshift home offices became classrooms. Kids met their new teachers and classmates over video as district officials kept a close eye on when an in-person reopening might be possible.

“Now is the moment that we re-engage our students through our best lessons.”

— Sean Riordan, teacher and Cabrillo Unified Teachers Association co-president

Santa Cruz Mountains ablaze

Devastating fire
The CZU August Lightning Complex fires began in August and weren't declared fully controlled until late December. Adam Pardee / Review

After a weekend of dry lightning storms across the California coast, a series of fires transformed into a deadly massive wildfire that tore through the South Coast and threatened thousands of lives and homes. Local and state firefighters were on the scene, but resources were spread thin. The state began battling some of the largest infernos in its history.

Thousands of South Coast residents were ordered to evacuate, prompting a massive effort to get animals, people and treasured belongings out of the way of the blaze. One Santa Cruz County resident died in the complex of fires, and several evacuation sites were established and hotel rooms secured for fire victims. Meanwhile, the flames crawled ever closer to the community of Loma Mar and homes in Butano Canyon.

By late August the weeks-long fire had consumed 11 structures and tens of thousands of acres in San Mateo County. Some South Coast residents were able to return to their homes, but those in the most threatened regions, where pockets of fire were still burning, were forced to wait even longer.

The fire was fully contained on Sept. 22 after burning a total of 86,509 acres.

“The time for prayers is now. We believe in this magnificent little hamlet.”

— Loma Mar resident Jeff Haas

DA does not prosecute deputies

San Mateo County district attorney’s office decided not to prosecute the deputies responsible for the shooting of Sandra Harmon. Body camera footage of the encounter was released in June, which authorities said showed Harmon reaching for her rifle before being shot by two deputies.

“Given all of the circumstances, and the rapidity with which these events unfolded, the deputies acted reasonably in using deadly force to prevent her from retrieving the shotgun.”

— District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe

September

Black Lives Matter
Two enterprising kids convinced the Half Moon Bay City Council to paint a new mural on City Hall. Adam Pardee / Review

City paints Black Lives Matter mural

Local brothers Junuh and Deaglan Eblovi wanted their hometown to take a stand during the national conversation around racial justice. So they took their request to paint a Black Lives Matter mural straight to the City Council. By fall, Oakland-based artist Steven Anderson had painted a mural on the wall of City Hall.

Pumpkin skies overhead

For one shocking day, the sun failed to shine. Instead there was an eerie orange glow over the Bay Area. The reason: wildfire smoke wafting high up in the atmosphere, blocking the sun’s rays like a strong filter.

“The smoke layers are about as thick as I’ve seen them. It’s like twilight.”

— Jan Null, certified consulting meteorologist for Golden Gate Weather Services and Half Moon Bay resident

County slowly reopens as cases flatten

As virus case rates dipped, local industries were allowed to slowly reopen, with indoor dining and gyms resuming service. County Health Officer Scott Morrow continued to stress that individual actions — like limiting gatherings and wearing face masks — would continue to flatten the curve.

“What this means is that you — the residents of San Mateo County — have made huge sacrifices to help slow the spread of COVID-19.”

— Mike Callagy, county manager

Some schools reopen, most students are left at home

With the advantage of small class sizes and lots of outdoor space, local private schools reopened in early fall to their youngest students. So, too, did some learning pods at local public schools. But for most students on the Coastside, remote learning would continue. For staff and counselors, prioritizing students’ mental health became more important than ever.

Classroom Pandemic-style
A group of children start their day with a a craft activity at Sea Crest school in Half Moon Bay. Adam Pardee / Review

“I changed my entire curriculum to focus on social-emotional learning.”

Katie Moore, Sea Crest School’s dean of students and director of athletics

 

October

Half Moon Bay opens city testing site

Supported by the county, the city of Half Moon Bay opened its first test site, offering mouth swab testing to kids and adults every Monday. Community Emergency Response Team members staffed the site, which later expanded to a new seniors-only site at Senior Coastsiders.

“That’s the nice thing about this, it’s really simple to set up. We can take this on the road on a smaller scale.”

— Matthew Chidester, deputy city manager

Weigh-off goes on

Travis Gienger’s “Tiger King” pumpkin took the trophy at this year’s World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off. It tipped the scales at 2,350 pounds. While the annual Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival was canceled, the weigh off went on, without spectators, livestreamed on Facebook.

PumpkinWeighOff2020_21_Web.jpg
Travis Geinger raises his hands in triumph as he is crowned this year's Pumpkin Weigh-Off Champion in Half Moon Bay on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. Adam Pardee / Review

“I’m so glad they didn’t cancel this event. It’s so important for us growers to just keep going.”

PG&E outages add to troubles

Portions of the Coastside went dark twice as PG&E shut off service due to high winds. After a historic fire season, the precautions were aimed at preventing further fires. But for many who woke up in the dark, it was another obstacle to an already tumultuous year.

“It’s not ideal.”

— Amy Wooliever, LHPUSD Superintendent who had to adjust remote learning plans

 

November

Election Day 2020 finally came

Long wait for an election
November's general election brought record numbers to vote by mail or in person. Adam Pardee / Review

Coastsiders turned out in record numbers to mail or cast their votes for the next president of the United States and for many local issues and candidates on this year’s ballot. Locally, Measure U to raise the tax paid by overnight visitors, passed. Joaquin Jimenez became the first Latino member of City Council.

“That tells me that we have — una comunidad unida — a very supportive community.”

— Joaquin Jimenez, Half Moon Bay resident, just after his election to City Council

 

COVID-19 surges again

By mid-November, COVID-19 cases took another upward turn, pushing the county into further restrictions. And with cold weather and the holidays on the horizon, public health officials worried that this third surge would prove more deadly than the last.

“The spread of COVID-19, if left unchecked, could quickly overwhelm our health care system.”

— Gov. Gavin Newsom

December

County buys local hotel to house homeless

With the help of federal CARES Act funding, San Mateo County purchased the 52-room Coastside Inn to convert to a shelter for local people experiencing homelessness.

Talking about housing
Members of City Management and Abundant Grace discuss a planned hotel purchase at Abundant Grace. Adam Pardee / Review

Prospective residents of the facility said they are optimistic about the $8 million purchase so long as it delivers on promised social services, counseling and meal delivery, and proves to be a safe, quiet and clean place to live.

“I want to reiterate the importance of following through. This is a costly project. It is a privilege. I can see whatever benefit you garner here can benefit the rest of the Bay Area.”

— Jamie Laguda Harris, Coastsider and prospective resident

County locks down again as vaccines arrive

As ICU capacity in the region dwindled, San Mateo County was shut down once again, closing hair salons, bars and other nonessential businesses. Meanwhile, the first shipments of just under 6,000 vaccines arrived to area hospitals and health care providers.

“We’re extremely concerned that we will see a surge within a surge.”

— Mike Callagy, county manager

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