COVID-19 dominates news in 2020

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As the year 2020 moves into the rearview mirror and the new year begins its 365-day journey around the sun, let’s take a moment to review the news stories that loomed large in the headlines during 2020.

• • •

The Year of COVID

Apart from maybe the presidential election, there was no single factor that dominated the news cycle more than the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. It has affected everything, from the economy to sports to education to community events to how we all conduct our day-to-day business.

What began as a few rumors and news clips about some new virus spreading in China’s Wuhan Province back in January of last year quickly garnered global and national concern as cases of the novel coronavirus started popping up in other countries, including our own.

The virus first made front page headlines here locally back in mid-March when a national state of emergency was declared, state and local officials started issuing guidelines, public events were cancelled, and general panic and fear started to take hold as many items like bottled water, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper disappeared from store shelves.

All public schools across the state were closed by order of the governor on March 19 in what was originally slated as a three-week closure period. But, as it turned out, that was basically the end of the 2019-20 school year, though county schools continued to provide meals for students through food pickup and delivery programs.

All school sports events were also cancelled, beginning with the state basketball tournaments. The Huntingdon High School Fillies played in the first round with a season-ending loss to Clarkrange, but that was the last day of tournament action in Murfreesboro as the rest of the girls’ games and all of the boys’ games were cancelled.

The 2020 baseball and softball seasons barely got started before they ended.

All the local high schools managed to hold graduation ceremonies, though some were held later than usual with attendance limitations in some cases and all with COVID-related changes to the usual ceremonies.

Public offices were temporarily closed, and when they re-opened, many featured newly installed virus barriers.

Businesses deemed as “non-essential” were forced to close for about a month in that initial shutdown as unemployment rates spiked.

Hit particularly hard were restaurants as indoor dining was halted for a time, and many local eating spots adapted to drive-thru and/or pickup formats. Some closed for awhile and then re-opened when restrictions were later lifted, but some closed and never re-opened.

Things slowly began to open back up in late spring and early summer, though summer vacationing was a little tricky for many with all kinds of travel restrictions, destination closures, and varying rules from state to state.

County schools were initially set to open at the usual time in early August, but a local spike in virus cases prompted some schools to delay opening and some schools pulled back from in-person attendance after being open for a few days.

But all county school systems managed to get through the fall semester, though that semester included some temporary closures, modified schedules, distance learning for some students, and a whole lot of extra COVID-related duties for school staff and administrators.

School sports in the fall was hit and miss (and it still is) as some games were cancelled and some schedule changes were made on the fly.

There were a lot of annual events that either didn’t happen or had to be scaled down in 2020, starting with the cancellation of Bruceton in May celebrations. Some July 4 festivities were cancelled and some were reduced to just fireworks displays. Huntingdon Heritage Day and McKenzie’s Sweet Tea and Southern Fried Festival were cancelled, as were most of the usual Halloween, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, and Christmas events around the county. Clarksburg was the only local municipality to hold a Christmas parade.

And, worst of all, 2020 was a year of sickness and death. The first death from COVID-19 in Carroll County was reported back in mid-April when there were only 15 confirmed cases in the county. As of Monday afternoon, Jan. 5, COVID had claimed 52 lives in the county and 2,765 cases had been confirmed.

But there were some positives that have come out of the pandemic. The way schools and the community came together to feed local children and families has been inspiring and impressive, as have been the expressions of love and support for frontline medical workers and emergency responders.

People have found creative ways to reach out to those who have found themselves locked down and isolated by the pandemic, especially residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

And a lot of people – particularly public officials and school board members – learned quite a bit about how to conduct and participate in remote video conferences.

Some light at the end of the tunnel was starting to show in December with the FDA’s approval and rollout of two COVID vaccines. Ten county first responders received the first round of the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 21 outside the Carroll County Health Department, and more county residents continue to be vaccinated as more doses become available.

• • •

Election Year 2020

On top of the worst global pandemic in 100 years, 2020 also happened to be a presidential election year, and an all-time record number of Americans stepped up to cast their ballots in spite of the pandemic and amidst quite a bit of political division and social unrest.

Carroll County voters also turned out in record numbers for the Nov. 3 election with a total of 9,194 voting for incumbent President Donald Trump and 2,558 voting for now President-Elect Joe Biden, who topped Trump nationally in both popular and electoral college votes.

U.S. and state congressional races were also decided on Nov. 3, as well as many spots in local municipal governments. In Huntingdon, a majority of voters opted for on-premises sale of alcohol.

General elections were also held earlier in the year on Aug. 6, when numerous positions on local school boards and two county commissioner seats were filled and primaries were held for state and U.S. congressional seats. Vicki Hodge Hoover was also elected as chancellor over the 24th Judicial District on Aug. 6.

• • •

Here are a few other news items that hit the press locally in 2020:

•Cedar Grove resident Larry Gene Watkins, Jr., 46, was shot and killed on Jan. 14, and Joseph Wert, 21, was charged in the killing. While originally charged with first degree murder, Wert was bound over to the Grand Jury on a reduced charge of second degree murder in May. His case has not yet been heard by the Grand Jury.

•Bruceton resident Ryan Bennett Mills, 29, was found dead when firefighters responded to a fire that destroyed her home on South Spruce Street in the early morning hours of Feb. 8. Later that day, her estranged husband, Jason Mark Mills, 33, of Camden, was charged with her murder by TBI agents. Jason Mills was bound over to the Grand Jury in July, and in September he was indicted on charges of first degree murder, aggravated arson, abuse of a corpse, and tampering with evidence.

•Severe thunderstorms, including a confirmed EF-2 tornado, roared through the county on March 2, downing several big metal power poles along Highway 22 between Huntingdon and McKenzie, knocking out power for thousands of residents, and damaging and destroying a number of homes, particularly in the Mixie Community. Among those who lost their homes were Rick and Brenda Lankford, Andora and Amanda Holland, Michael Hones, and Bruce Bailey. A little over a month later, Mr. Bailey moved into a brand new home, thanks to the generosity and hard work of local volunteers and local and area businesses.

•After being closed to the public for nearly six years, Carroll Lake re-opened on May 1 for fishing, boating, and other recreational activities. The lake was closed in the summer of 2014 after historic rainfall overwhelmed and damaged the floodgates to the spillway, causing the lake to drain into the surrounding creek system. Work on restoring the lake began in August of 2016, and new floodgates were installed in January of 2017, starting the slow process of refilling the lake and restoring the fish population.

•About 100 residents of the Big Buck Community gathered in the parking lot of Union Academy Baptist Church in May with most expressing their opposition to a large hog operation planned for that area. Reed Austin is proposing to construct hog barns that can house up to 5,000 pigs on his property with Jimmy Tosh of Tosh Farms supplying the pigs. Residents later addressed the Carroll County Legislative Body, asking if something could be done to stop the project, but commissioners advised them that they have no jurisdiction in this matter. No hog barns have yet been built, but construction is planned to begin in the spring of this year.

•Huntingdon Director of Schools Pat Dillahunty announced that she will be retiring at the end of the 2020-21 school year during the Oct. 15 school board meeting. Dillahunty has headed up the Huntingdon Special School District for the past 12 years and has served in the school district in various positions for over 33 years. The Board of Education is expected to start the process of hiring a new director of schools soon.

•Carroll County native and rockabilly legend Carl Mann died on Dec. 16 at the age of 78. Mann’s music career spanned decades and featured many historic recordings, the most well-known being his 1959 Sun Records remake of Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa.” He has toured across the U.S. and Europe during his career, and he has been featured in many local performances at The Dixie.

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