As the Journal's editorial staff gathered (virtually) for the annual ritual of deciding the year's top 10 stories — the most impactful and memorable things that happened on the North Coast — it was inescapable: The stench of COVID-19 was everywhere. From shuttered schools, closed businesses and laid-off workers to local government's frantic planning efforts, death and illness — COVID-19 was the top 10 stories in Humboldt County. Every. Single. One.
But that was a depressing realization we couldn't entirely square with. After all, there were other monumental stories in 2020 that will forever change Humboldt — from huge forest fires and an institution in crisis to the fight for racial justice and the decades-long effort to restore a river's health. Omitting those, we felt, was letting the pandemic win. So we opted to give COVID-19 the space and prominence it deserves, while offering readers five additional stories that any time other than 2020 would be considered the most important stories of the year.
First case of COVID
It was Feb. 16 when two people who had recently traveled to China contacted St. Joseph Hospital's emergency room to say they were experiencing flu-like symptoms. Back then, COVID-19 was still thought of by many as a virus far away. But a test would soon confirm the news no one had quite expected to hear: COVID-19 had landed in Humboldt County.
On that day, according to the New York Times, Humboldt became the first rural county in the United States to confirm a case, just the 13th detected in the nation.
Within a month, Humboldt County was under a local shelter-in-place order. While the region would fare far better than its Bay Area and Southern California counterparts for much of 2020 when its came to COVID case counts, Humboldt joined most of the state in the purple, or "widespread" risk, tier by the end of November, where it remains to this day.
Shelter in Place
It was arguably the single most impactful decision by a local official in generations and it came just 49 days into Teresa Frankovich's tenure as Humboldt County's health officer. The sweeping shelter-in-place order, which came before statewide action, directed Humboldt County residents to shelter in their homes unless leaving on essential outings — like grocery shopping, going to the pharmacy or working an "essential job."
It shuttered schools and businesses in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Humboldt County, while allowing local officials and healthcare providers time to plan and prepare. The order left Humboldt County's streets and neighborhood centers largely vacant as residents confronted the realities of life in a pandemic. It was the moment when COVID-19 began to impact Humboldt County in deep, irreversible ways, sending unemployment claims skyrocketing and disrupting the educations of local school children, while also allowing the county to build the vital infrastructure it would need to confront COVID-19 moving forward.
The order would ultimately remain in effect for the better part of two months, until officials unveiled a phased plan that would allow "non-essential" local businesses to re-open after having operational safety plans approved by the county.
Humboldt County Public Health Officer Teresa Frankovich declared a public health emergency on March 11, soon after, as cases in the state and nation continued to climb, Frankovich authorized a shelter-in-place order requiring that all residents stay home except for "essential activities," suspending all sports activities, large gatherings and events throughout the county. Sheriff William Honsal declared a local emergency, putting the Office of Emergency Services in charge of directing a countywide, multi-agency response to the COVID-19 pandemic and paving the way for state and federal disaster reimbursements.
Then, county officials worked quickly to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases. They quickly expanded Public Health's team of contact tracing investigators to 30, erected a 100-bed alternative care site and a testing facility in partnership with the state at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds and expand the availability of personal protective equipment locally. Local hospitals, meanwhile, planned to create surge capacity, ordering new ventilators, renting others and planning to convert operating rooms into intensive care units. The Humboldt County Public Health Laboratory, meanwhile, grew its testing capacity 10-fold in a matter of months, as officials also entered into a partnership with United Indian Health Services, the county of Del Norte, Humboldt State University and the state of California to open a new COVID-19 testing laboratory that is projected to more than double local testing capacity when it's up and running.
Looking back at 2020, local government — often criticized for moving at a snail's pace — will be remembered for doing a lot of heavy lifting on a very tight timeline with incredibly high stakes.
HSU brings back students
As summer was drawing to an end, news came that Humboldt State University was readying to bring some 800 students back to live on campus.
It was a decision met with apprehension by health officials, email exchanges between then Health Officer Teresa Frankovich and HSU President Tom Jackson Jr. show, with Frankovich raising a bevy of concerns about even a limited reopening of campus, as Humboldt was seeing a surge in local cases and testing capacity was limited.
Jackson would go on to question her reasoning in the exchange, calling it "perplexing," and saying the plans would go forward unless Frankovich intended to use her authority to "obstruct" the university.
In the end, the students did return and, according to the latest stats posted by HSU dated Nov. 18, at least 43 students tested by the campus health center were positive for the virus, but those numbers do not include results from private labs.
Earlier this month, the California State University system, of which HSU is a part, announced it aims to return to primarily in-person classes by the fall of 2021.
Humboldt's First COVID-19 Death
Her name was Ida Adelia Newell.
She was 97 years old, an avid reader with an easy smile, and became Humboldt County's first COVID-19 death on May 17 after a COVID-19 outbreak hit the Alder Bay Assisted Living facility where she lived. But her family didn't want her to be known as a grim statistic, so they recounted her adventures. And she lived a life filled with many, traveling to far away places but always returning to her beloved home, Humboldt County.
She lived with a smile, a laugh and an ever present curiosity, and she lived Humboldt's history, from her family's bootlegging business and United Service Organization dances to the Redwood Coast Dixieland Jazz Festival and, ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic. But the most remarkable thing about Ida's life was how she managed to form deep, lasting friendships, some of which spanned decades. Those who knew her will remember her as a once in a generation personality, a kind, outgoing soul who loved to make connections with others, to share stories and adventures.
The news came seemingly out of the blue at the beginning of September. Then-County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich, who assiduously led Humboldt's response to the COVID-19 pandemic with an aura of calm despite being on the receiving end of sometimes caustic comments at public meetings and on social media, was stepping down from the post.
At the time, Frankovich made clear that her "difficult decision" was not due to the bullies but the need to keep promises made to her family.
Even though her tenure was short, Frankovich — who thought she was taking on a part-time post last January only to find herself amid a worldwide pandemic weeks later — cast a lasting impression on the region she still serves in a supporting rather than leading role. Along with her team, Frankovich not only positioned Humboldt to face the growing COVID crisis but also helped keep the virus somewhat at bay in the initial months with decisive actions — including shutting down Humboldt early on, despite grumblings in some sectors — before the same surge now blanketing the state and nation made its way to the North Coast as winter and the holidays arrived.
Nursing Home Outbreaks
As has been throughout the country, when COVID-19 found its way into local nursing homes, the consequences were devastating. Health officials have warned that despite the best efforts of residents and staff, the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the larger community makes it harder to keep the disease out of long-term care facilities, whose residents are most vulnerable to suffering critical outcomes from the disease.
In Humboldt County, the first such outbreak was at Alder Bay Assisted Living in Eureka in May, with five staff members and seven residents testing positive for the virus, with four residents dying of the disease in what would be recorded as the county's first COVID-19 deaths. The second outbreak came at Granada Rehab and Wellness Center as county caseloads spiked in December, with 100 residents and staff having tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak continued to take its toll as this issue of the Journal went to press, with Public Health announcing Dec. 26 that an eighth Granada resident who'd tested positive for the disease had died, marking the county's 18th COVID-related death.
When Humboldt County Public Health began offering demographic statistics for its positive COVID-19 cases on the county dashboard, it revealed the pandemic was not effecting everyone equally. The largest disparities were in the county's Latinx population. Following a national trend, in July, 22 percent of locally confirmed COVID-19 cases had been found in Latinx and Hispanic community members, who make up 12.2 percent of the local population. The disparity has only grown since and, with Latinx people making up 31.5 percent of Humboldt County's confirmed COVID-19 cases as of December.
Caterina Kein of St. Joseph's Health's Paso a Paso program, which offers Spanish services to community members, said that housing stability, economic health and access to care are all variables that make people more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. Latinx and Hispanic households in the county are more likely to live below the poverty line, half as likely to own a single-family home and, according to the American Community Survey, Hispanic and Latinx workers disproportionately fill the types of service sector jobs that can lead to more COVID-19 exposure and were hardest hit by initial layoffs at the beginning of the shelter in place order.
It's hard to overstate the economic impact COVID-19 has had on Humboldt County's economy. Food pantries have been overwhelmed as people lined up by the hundreds for distanced drive-through food box distributions. Residents applied for unemployment benefits by the thousands in unprecedented numbers. And small businesses — especially restaurants — have been hit hard, with handfuls closing permanently, including some institutions, like Mazzotti's on the Plaza and Old Town's Café Nooner.
Even healthcare providers were forced to furlough workers and make other cuts after being forced to cancel or postpone many elective procedures and services, and unnecessary in-patient visits.
Local governments also weren't spared the economic pain, with cities from Fortuna to Arcata forced to make budget reductions in the face declining sales tax revenues.
For months and months, local health officials warned of a looming surge in COVID-19 cases that threatened to potentially overwhelm local healthcare systems. Then, in December, it arrived.
When a then record-setting November came to a close, Humboldt County had confirmed 898 COVID-19 cases through the course of the pandemic, including 327 that month. Cases then began to spike dramatically, and by the time this issue of the Journal went to press Dec. 29, the county had already confirmed 781 new cases — 47 percent of the county's cumulative total. Additionally, Humboldt County saw 27 percent of its COVID-related hospitalizations and 55 percent of its deaths confirmed in December.
Health officials have attributed the steep spike to a perfect storm of pandemic fatigue, holiday travel and get-togethers and the onset of cold weather, which all too often forced ill-advised social gatherings indoors. But just how far the spike would extend — and its full impact on local health systems — remains to be seen as 2020 draws to a close, as the county is still only now beginning to feel the full impact of Thanksgiving travel and gatherings. Local healthcare workers, meanwhile, report that the emergency room at the county's largest hospital — St. Joseph — is already overwhelmed with more critically ill patients than providers have ever seen.
Projections — which hold that about 12 percent of COVID-19 patients will require hospitalization within two weeks of their diagnosis — indicate the first weeks of 2021 will be hard. But just how hard will depend on how many North Coast residents listened to health officers' pleadings to wear masks and refrain from travel and social gatherings as 2020 drew to a close.
Election Day 2020
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and in the shadow of a divisive presidential race, Humboldt County residents cast their ballots on a host of local measures — including several tax hikes to bolster hard-hit government coffers and the approval of ranked-choice voting in Eureka — as well as for their candidates of choice to represent them on the local level.
The results saw a number of new faces stepping up to the dais, in some cases besting familiar names, including the Second District supervisorial race, which saw rancher Michelle Bushnell take the seat from two-term incumbent Estelle Fennell in a tight race that wasn't called until weeks after Election Day.
With all the ballots counted, 69,932 Humboldt County residents voted in this year's election, 82 percent of those registered and 68 percent of those eligible.
Humboldt County residents awoke Sept. 9 to the apocalyptic glow of an eerie orange sky created by heavy haze in the air from surrounding wildfires, some of which had already been burning for weeks. For weeks, residents across wide swaths of the region would face choking smoke, a series of evacuation warnings or orders, fear and unease, with hundreds losing their homes amid the worst fire season in California history.
Only when the North Coast's fall rains fell were the region's three major fires — the Slater-Devil Fire, the Red Salmon Fire and the August Complex, the largest in California's history at more than 1 million acres — finally quelled despite the heroic efforts of legions of firefighters who were stretched thin by the sheer magnitude of the firestorms up and down the state.
HSU Budget Crunch
There was no question that at the beginning of the Spring semester, Humboldt State University's enrollment was hurting with only 6,763 students signed up — about 1,000 fewer than last year. The lower enrollment severely impacted the school's budget (which was already running a deficit) as each student is a revenue stream, paying tuition and fees. At the time, the University Resource and Planning Committee (URPC) proposed the university cut the budget by $5 million over the next two years due to a structural deficit created by the enrollment declines. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, push the projected gap to a $20 million deficit over the next two years. In March, the university began refocusing its recruitment efforts on local students by offering the Humboldt First Scholarship and was making some strides, with 700 local seniors offered the scholarship.
Toward the beginning of the 2020 fall semester, HSU reported that enrollment had been showing positive signs, with incoming transfer student numbers at the highest they had been since 2017, leaving some hope for bridging at least a portion of that $20-million deficit.
New Deal to Remove Klamath Dams
When a group of stakeholders announced in November that, once again, a hard-fought accord to remove four hydroelectric dams choking the lower Klamath River had been resuscitated, it was a rare ray of positive news in 2020.
The agreement, which was more than a decade in the making and would result in one of the largest dam removal efforts in the world and the largest river restoration project in U.S. history, was revived after stakeholders — including the states of California and Oregon, and the Karuk and Yurok tribes — were able to coax the dam's owner, Berkshire Hathaway-owned PacifiCorp Power — back into the agreement after a federal agency's ruling in July left the company threatening to walk away. A months-long pressure campaign from stakeholders and activists ensued, urging the company to follow through with dam removal. The campaign proved successful, the final announcement came with a statement from Berkshire Hathaway Chair Warren Buffett, his first public comments in the decades-long effort to remove the dams and restore the Klamath, it salmon runs and the Native people whose culture, livelihoods and diets depend on them, to health.
The new accord, which saw Oregon, California and Berkshire Hathaway agree to split any cost overruns or liabilities associated with dam removal, is slated to see the dams removed and the lower Klamath River running unencumbered in 2023.
Black Lives Matter
For weeks in late May and June, the streets of Humboldt County — from Eureka to McKinleyville and Fortuna to Ferndale, and even Shelter Cove — filled with protesters loudly proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.
The string of protests — some spontaneous and others planned — came amid a national movement in the wake of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, when an officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes while he lay prone and handcuffed, saying he couldn't breath. Locally, the protests were largely peaceful, though there were isolated instances of vandalism and several reports of vehicles speeding dangerously through protests' paths, leaving a woman injured in Eureka.
Local law enforcement was generally supportive of the protests, with the sheriff and numerous police chiefs making statements of support and taking time to meet with activists and hear their concerns. In their aftermath, local police departments reviewed use of force policies — with several outlawing use of a neck restraint hold — and Arcata and Eureka created boards or committees aimed at bringing additional levels of transparency and community input to policing. Meanwhile, the protests and the national dialogue continued to push issues of racism and equity to the foreground, prompting a host of local institutions to rethink their policies and pasts.