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The strangest of years: Napa news in 2020
2020 Year in Review

The strangest of years: Napa news in 2020

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2020 was a year of surpassing strangeness.

In many ways it was the most consequential year in the last century. A year that changed the way we worked, the way we went to school, altered where and how we lived, a year where we lost friends, loved ones and coworkers to a mysterious disease.

Yet in many ways it was a non-year, a hole in the calendar. We shake our heads and wonder how it’s possible that it is December already, after we spent nine months or more staring at the same walls, the same people, doing the same thing day after day after day.

Here are some of the highs and lows in Napa County from this weirdest of years.

January

The year started with a long-awaited physical change: the opening of a new series of roundabouts at the First Street exit off of Highway 29, reportedly the most complicated roundabout project in the state. The project had generated huge controversy for years, with critics complaining that the circles would be a fiasco.

In politics, the first heat of the campaign season broke out as a dispute erupted on Napa City Council over the use of the title “vice mayor” by member Doris Gentry in her mayoral campaign against fellow council member Scott Sedgley. A group of progressive activists, meanwhile, threatened legal action if the city did not go to district-based council elections, rather than the traditional at-large method. They said the change would protect minority rights.

The month ended with the first official response to an unfamiliar new disease spreading overseas, known as the “coronavirus.” There had been seven cases in the U.S., but none in Napa.

February

The far-away coronavirus finally made its way to Napa County, with news that two infected people, who had been quarantined at Travis Air Force Base, had been transferred to Queen of the Valley Medical Center. Officials raced to reassure jittery Napans that there was no danger to the public and no sign of the virus in the county. They patients were both sent back to Travis by the end of the month.

Facing possible legal action, the Napa City Council put district-based elections on the fast track, despite calls from critics to wait until after the 2020 Census to get more accurate population data.

March

This was the month when the coronavirus became reality for Napa County residents. Cases first popped up in neighboring Solano and Sonoma counties, followed by Napa’s first cases. By the end of the month, Napa County had its first death, a Santa Rosa police officer who lived in American Canyon.

Stores shelves were stripped bare of non-perishable foods and cleaning supplies of every description. By March 20, the state was under a stay-at-home order, shuttering many business and schools. Events well into the summer were cancelled or delayed.

April

This was the month of coming to terms with the unimaginable.

Restaurants and other businesses faced a bleak future with no income. Workers wondered when – or even if – they could go back to work and start earning income. The prospect of eviction became very real as income dried up even while bills mounted.

Hunger became a way of life even for people who were formerly comfortable. Food giveaways, both private and government-funded, drew long lines of unemployed people.

But through the growing fear and worry, a kind of all-in-this-together spirit remained, as crafty Napans pitched in to sew home-made face masks or shape plastic shields.

With kids out of school and unable to socialize in large groups, parents turned to walks around their neighborhoods to get kids out and moving around. Napa residents began posting teddy bears in windows and in yards to provide entertainment for the youngsters as they walked.

May

Entering their second month stuck at home, residents and business owners were restless and ready for it to be over.

Quent Cordair, owner of a downtown art gallery, publicly declared his intention to reopen despite the county’s closure order. He was followed by Napa’s Fumé Bistro & Bar, which reopened for two nights. The county quickly cracked down and the businesses closed again.

But by mid-month came the first tentative steps of a return to normal. Restaurants and retail stores were permitted to reopen, but with tight restrictions on capacity. At the end of the month shaggy-haired Napa residents were pleased to return to their favorite barbershops and salons, albeit with outdoor service only.

The city of Napa struggled to deal with the huge drop in tax revenue during the pandemic, proposing layoffs and perhaps even abolishing the Parks & Recreation Department. A huge public outcry shelved the plan by month's end, however.

As the month wound up, health officials pleaded with residents not to gather in large parties over the Memorial Day weekend.

June

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a White police officer spurred protests across the country. In Napa, demonstrations were peaceful, as marchers called for an end to police brutality.

The marches expanded in scope through the month to decry systemic racism and call for greater tolerance and inclusivity, particularly for the LGBTQ community. They also spurred something of a backlash, with conservatives organizing a series of “We Back Blue” rallies in support of law enforcement.

The virus was never far below the surface, however. Officials noted an ominous spike in cases, possibly tied to ill-advised Memorial Day gatherings, cities struggled to balance their budgets, and more beloved stores and restaurants announced they would close.

On the brighter side, wine tasting rooms were permitted to reopen for outdoor service. And high school seniors managed to celebrate graduation after all, albeit in a socially distanced way.

July

The disappointing rise in cases during June led to limited rollbacks on businesses of all sorts, frustrating owners and local officials. BottleRock pushed its entire music festival into 2021.

Schools announced that districts would start online for the 2020-21 school year and remain so at least through the fall.

The virus made its way into the Veterans Home, sickening a number of residents and claiming the life of a beloved employee.

August

As temperatures soared into the triple digits, an unusual swarm of thunderstorms ignited blazes across Northern California. Dangerously dry vegetation and strong winds spread the blazes with terrifying speed.

The Hennessy Fire, which later merged with other smaller blazes to become the LNU Lightning Complex fire, leveled whole neighborhoods around Lake Berryessa. It claimed six lives and destroyed 363,220 acres, making the 11th most destructive fire in state history.

In virus news, business owners were heartened when the state eased restrictions slightly. At the same time, county officials got a court order to block Buttercream Bakery from going too far, remaining open for indoor dining in violation of the state rules.

September

Just a month after fire ravaged Lake Berryessa, flames broke out in the hills east of Calistoga and St. Helena on a windy night, spreading through the heart of Napa Valley with astonishing rapidity.

It jumped the valley from east to west, in the process damaging or destroying some of the county’s most famous wineries. It leveled the community of Deer Park and licked on the edges of Calistoga and St. Helena, prompting extensive Upvalley evacuations. The Glass Fire destroyed more than 1,500 structures in Napa and Sonoma counties, surpassing the LNU Lightning Complex to become the 10th most destructive fire in California history.

Pandemic Fatigue became a major issue, meanwhile, as Labor Day gatherings spurred an alarming boost in virus cases.

October

Napa County began to rebuild after the two devastating fires of August and July, but the scorched hills and destroyed homes were a stark reminder that almost all parts of the county are at least some risk of fire. Ongoing hot, dry and windy weather kept residents on edge through the month and during several power shutdowns initiated by PG&E.

The state unveiled a new way of assessing coronavirus risk, placing Napa in the middle “orange” tier, allowing stores and restaurants to reopen with fewer restrictions, despite the ongoing spike in cases following Labor Day. Schools cautiously allowed limited numbers of students to return to campus in person.

November

Napa had its first new mayor in 16 years, following the retirement of Jill Techel. Council member Scott Sedgley soundly defeated fellow Council member Doris Gentry in the Nov. 3 election after an unusually heated campaign.

Cramped by virus restrictions and stunned by recent destructive fires, the wine industry asked the supervisors to consider easing their strict regulations to allow for more visitation and other measures to boost business.

The Napa Valley Vintners, meanwhile, cancelled their flagship fundraiser Auction Napa Valley for 2021, not unexpected after the Glass fire destroyed parts of the traditional venue, Meadowood resort. But the announcement came with a twist – the Vintners said the auction was unlikely to return in its former shape and the organization was considering major changes for the future version.

December

The virus again took center stage, as a huge spike of cases nationally forced many areas back to the strict lockdown measures not seen since the spring. Napa declined to join other Bay Area counties in shutting down before required to do so by the state, but business owners and residents were readying themselves for a grim winter.

Cases and hospitalizations set records in Napa County throughout the month.

But hope was on the way. By mid-month, the first batches of a promising vaccine were being delivered across the country. The vaccine was in short supply, however, so officials warned that it might be well into the new year before the general public got their doses.

The coronavirus, it seems, was here to stay for a while.

YOUR GUIDE TO COVID-19

WATCH NOW: HOLD ON AND STAY SAFE WHILE VACCINES ROLL OUT

As vaccinations get underway, the World Health Organization's technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, makes an impassioned appeal for people to protect themselves and loved ones from COVID-19 in 2021.

NAPA COUNTY'S NEW FIRE REALITY

​You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or sscully@napanews.com.

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Editor

Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.

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