Any way you look at it, 2020 has had enough memorable occurrences to fill a lifetime’s worth of calendars. Today, we’re breaking down five of the top storylines from the past 12 months. Some of them will make you smile. Others will make you frustrated and sad. And a few of them are just plain strange. At any rate, here’s hoping for a healthier, happier and less eventful 2021.
The Covid-19 pandemic devastates the community.
Once the first cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Florida in mid-March, life in St. Pete – and across the globe – screeched to a halt. The Firestone Grand Prix was one of the first events to be called off, and concerts and other live entertainment were soon to follow. Museums closed as did schools, restaurants, gyms, salons, beaches, houses of worship and retail shops, and residents were ordered to stay home unless doing an essential activity such as grocery shopping or visiting the doctor. When they had to go out, public health officials encouraged them to wear masks, social distance and avoid large crowds. Elective surgeries were canceled and hospitals and nursing homes cracked down on visitations. Many people lost their jobs and their businesses, forcing them to file for unemployment or aid through Pinellas CARES or the city’s Fighting Chance Fund. In April, Governor Ron DeSantis allowed restaurants and retailers to reopen on a limited basis and elective surgeries to resume. Gradually, more and more restrictions were lifted, and DeSantis vowed the state would not lock down again, nor would he issue a statewide mask mandate. Meanwhile, the virus continued to spread, and people waited for hours in line at mobile testing sites at Tropicana Field and the Mahaffey Theater. In June, St. Pete enacted a mask mandate and Pinellas County followed soon after that, despite vocal opposition from people who felt requiring a mask violated their rights. By late August, schools had reopened their doors while continuing to offer distance learning options for students. Bars, which had been required to close in late June, were allowed to welcome back patrons in mid September and two weeks later, DeSantis lifted restrictions on restaurant capacity. However, local ordinances remain requiring social distancing and mask wearing, and not everyone is following the rules. The holidays arrived with some good news in the form of two new Covid vaccines, and some bad news as the number of Covid-related deaths topped 1,000. The total number of confirmed cases now tops 44,000.
The Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum.
Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, St. Petersburg – like many other communities – found itself grappling with issues surrounding systemic racism and injustice and searching for answers. During most nights throughout the summer, demonstrations were held throughout St. Pete, attracting many people who had never attended a protest before. To commemorate Juneteenth, the city unveiled a brand-new Black Lives Matter mural outside the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. Sixteen artists from across Tampa Bay came together to create the mural, and while they had different visions for their creation, they all agreed that more needs to be done to ensure Black lives really do matter. At the same time, residents and community leaders began to explore the idea of what defunding the police – a rallying cry spawned by the protests – could mean for St. Petersburg. In July, St. Pete police chief Anthony Holloway announced that the police department planned to start sending community and social service professionals instead of uniformed police officers on some non-violent calls for service. The program is scheduled to launch in early 2021. In December, the St. Pete Police Department launched its body camera program, which will continue to be rolled out to all officers in the coming weeks.
The University of South Florida consolidates, but challenges remain.
In July, The Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses of the University of South Florida officially began operating under a single accreditation. It was touted as a positive development, giving students a larger pool of majors to choose from and more services available to support them. Faculty members would have new opportunities for interdisciplinary research collaborations and community partnerships. And the smaller Sarasota-Manatee and St. Petersburg campuses would have access to funding awarded to USF as one of the state’s preeminent research universities, money they wouldn’t have been previously eligible to receive as separately accredited institutions. However, much of the attention has been on declining enrollment on the small waterfront campus. According to USF fall-only enrollment data, freshman enrollment has been dropping over the last several years. In 2017, 402 first-time-in-college students started at the St. Petersburg campus. That number has fallen to 157 in 2020. There’s only one Black student in this year’s fall freshman class, and just 25 Hispanic students. Seeking a turnaround in 2021, USF leadership has committed to enrolling 650 new first year students and increasing diversity while also doing more to retain and graduate its current students. There are also plans to create five new academic clusters that will help attract more student and faculty talent. Across the bay on the Tampa campus, an October announcement that USF planned to phase out undergraduate programs in its College of Education due to budget cuts caused widespread outrage. School district leaders from across the region including Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Mike Grego spoke out against the plan, and several members of the school’s board of trustees also publicly questioned it. In November, administrators said no final decision has been made but they appear to be reconsidering their decision and noted that the school “intends to continue offering carefully selected undergraduate degrees in education.” One of those degrees could possibly be tied to STEM education and would be housed on the St. Petersburg campus.
City Council goes virtual.
City Council members had not met in person in City Hall in more than a year due to renovations. Then Covid happened, forcing them to move their meetings online starting in April. It was an adjustment for everyone, and at one June meeting, they got Zoom bombed by a caller hurling racial slurs. However, the council was able to continue to get business done. Some key actions include a vote to advance the controversial plan for the Coastal High Hazard Area, the continued championing and approval of affordable housing projects, the plans to select a more diverse panel for next year’s charter review commission, the creation of a Food Policy Council to address the issue of food insecurity and the passing of an amendment to the city’s land development regulations that will allow for the expansion for the production and sale of locally grown produce. Many of these things happened while the council was meeting online, and when in-person meetings resumed in November, council chambers looked quite different, with plexiglass partitions separating everyone and speakers being allowed in limited numbers. At one of the final meetings of the year, a coin toss determined that Ed Montanari would serve another term as council chair. Very 2020, indeed.
Tampa Bay sports have a banner year.
Fans of Tampa Bay teams had a lot to cheer about this year. Tom Brady became the new quarterback for the Buccaneers and for the first time since 2007, the team is headed for the playoffs. Could an appearance at February’s Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium be next? The Lightning won the Stanley Cup against the Dallas Stars. The Rowdies took the top spot in the USL Eastern Conference. And the Rays made a historic run against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, with Game 6 being named Sports Illustrated’s “game of the year.” In that game, two Los Angeles errors allowed Randy Arozarena to slide home and win the game 8 to 7. During a year when there was a lot to feel hopeless about, sports provided a much-needed escape.