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No suprise: COVID is top story of 2020

EAU CLAIRE – Could it really be anything else?

When our staff looked back at the top 10 stories of 2020 the top pick was unanimous. The COVID-19 pandemic hit with a force unparalleled in recent years.

The worst pandemic in a century burned through the nation. Since the first surge in March, every single county in the country has had at least one case confirmed. The final one was in rural Hawaii, one of the most isolated spots on the globe.

It wasn’t just the United States, of course. By year’s end more than 75 million cases were confirmed globally, along with more than 1.7 million deaths.

But the United States was the hardest-hit country, with more than 17 million cases and 300,000 deaths.

How did we get here? The virus began in Wuhan, China. Initial reports indicated only that there was an illness apparently causing respiratory problems, possibly a new virus.

The world had been there before. The SARS virus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) emerged in 2002 in China and spread to a few other nations. A decade later MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) infected people. Neither caused a pandemic, but the initial concerns were similar to those expressed about the virus that causes COVID.

The virus spread to China’s neighbors first. By January 2020 it was found in 19 nations. By mid-March Europe was the center of the pandemic. By late March, the United States was.

Governments worldwide reacted in much the same ways. Borders were closed or tightened. Businesses and schools shut down and people were told to stay at home. In the U.S., many students who left for spring break in March never returned to class.

The virus arrived in the Chippewa Valley in March. Chippewa, Dunn and Eau Claire counties each saw their first cases confirmed March 20. By later standards the initial spread was slow, though it seemed to race through communities. Eventually the number of new cases began declining.

By April, pressure to reopen businesses was growing. States did, and the pandemic shifted. There was no nationwide explosion of cases in the spring and early summer. Instead, regional outbreaks flared up. The northeast was first, with New York City the center of the early cases in the United States.

Outbreaks followed in the south and in some southwestern states. The Midwest saw rising numbers, but was largely spared the worst of the pandemic. By fall, that changed.

In October and November Wisconsin and other Midwestern states saw the worst outbreaks in the country. Numbers rose rapidly, with Wisconsin recording nearly 8,000 new cases in a single day shortly before Thanksgiving. The situation was dire, with numerous hospitals announcing they were full. The worst of the state’s outbreak was in the western and Northwestern part of the state, the Chippewa Valley included.

Experts predicted a huge surge would hit in the weeks after Thanksgiving. With local numbers already high, it seemed inevitable that things would get much worse. But it didn’t. While much of the rest of the nation saw numbers skyrocket, Wisconsin totals declined. The spike in cases was ending.

By late December the first doses of a COVID vaccine began going into the arms of local medical personnel. The process of vaccinating the population will continue into 2021, but the first proactive steps to end the pandemic are underway.

The pandemic shuttered schools and businesses in 2020. It caused untold economic hardship. It took thousands of Wisconsin residents.

No other story comes close to the effects COVID had on the region, the nation, or the world. It’s the top story of 2020.

2020 had shocks, but region played on

EAU CLAIRE — While there was unanimous agreement among the Leader-Telegram’s staff about the top story of 2020, the opinions on the rest of the top 10 varied a bit more. Everyone agreed the stunning arrest of former Altoona Superintendent Daniel Peggs was a top story, but not about where it fell. The same was true of the summer’s protests.

Here’s how the list breaks down for the rest of the top 10 stories.

2. Daniel Peggs arrested

When federal agents arrested Daniel Peggs in February, the community was shocked. He was arrested after officers from multiple jurisdictions staked out his usual route to work.

Federal prosecutors accused him of sex trafficking of a minor and making child pornography. Peggs had been superintendent less than a year, and previously served as the middle school principal.

The arrest was part of a broader investigation that stretched all the way to North Carolina. Authorities have said Peggs’ victim was from Wisconsin, but not from the Altoona school district.

Prosecutors added more charges in July, and gave additional details about what Peggs is accused of. The charges accuse him of producing two sexually explicit videos with a child he recruited in late 2015 and early 2016.

The case is still pending in federal court. Peggs faces decades behind bars if convicted.

3. Racial justice protests

George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked protests far beyond the city. Even as the pandemic spread, people gathered in cities worldwide to advocate for changes in how police interact with minority residents.

While protests turned ugly in some areas, with rioting and substantial destruction of property, Eau Claire protesters kept the focus on their demands for change and avoided the kind of scenes that played out in some other cities.

In early June, a protest in downtown Eau Claire drew more than 1,000 people. Protesters asked the community to face uncomfortable discussions about the role of racism in daily life and what people can do to improve. Another round of protests in August was prompted by the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha.

The protests also became flashpoints during a heated campaign season, with people’s views of the actions largely determined by their political views.

4. Colten Treu sentenced

Colten Treu was behind the wheel of a pickup that struck and killed three Girl Scouts and one adult in November 2018. Another girl was seriously injured. The scouts were collecting litter along Highway P.

Treu received his sentence in March: 54 years in prison. The judge’s order included 11 years for each of the four deaths and 10 years for the injuries to the surviving scout. He must also serve 45 years of extended supervision when he is released.

Prosecutors said Treu had been huffing from an aerosol canister before the crash. They said he either was unaware of what was happening, or he intentionally ran down the victims. Judge James Isaacson said he saw no signs of remorse from Treu until his sentencing.

Two months before the fatal crash, Treu was involved in a rollover after huffing. His sentence in that case will run concurrently.

5. Heated elections

The pandemic, protests and other events of 2020 played out with a hotly contested presidential election looming in November.

Incumbent President Donald Trump ultimately lost to Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who flipped Wisconsin back to Democrats. The margin in the state was slightly more than 20,000 votes. Trump sought a recount in two counties, but that effort did not find enough votes to change the outcome.

While Biden won the vote total, far more counties landed in Trump’s column. Biden’s margins in urban and suburban areas were enough to outweigh rural totals that favored Trump.

Democratic hopes of another blue wave election fell far short nationally, with the party losing ground in the House. The balance in the Senate depends on the outcome of two special elections in Georgia later this month.

Wisconsin Republicans had hoped they would gain veto-proof majorities in the Legislature, allowing them to ignore veto threats from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. That hope also fell short.

6. Fall sports decisions

The return of classes in the fall also brought a rise in COVID numbers in Wisconsin. That left area school districts with some tough decisions to make after the abrupt end of spring sports in March.

Many worried fall sports would turn into events that spread the virus between schools. Football, the highest-profile fall sport, saw districts weighing whether to play in the fall or next spring. Ultimately, most area districts chose to play in the fall.

North and Memorial high schools in Eau Claire and Big Rivers member Superior were three of the few schools that eventually settled on the spring season, which was established by the WIAA to give districts flexibility. The schools are set for a seven-game schedule in March.

The worst fears about how fall sports would play out didn’t come to pass. While teams had to adjust schedules as COVID hit various teams, there was never a massive increase in cases among high school athletes.

That means an unusual 2021 for one area player. Loyal Crawford will play for Memorial in the spring and, after graduating, for Wisconsin in the fall.

7. Joe Luginbill saga

Plans touted by Joe Luginbill, a former school board president, for a shelter for teens who age out of foster care and redevelopment of the State Theater came crashing down in 2020.

In January, the Chippewa Valley LGBTQ+ Community Center announced it was moving out of the theater after utilities were shut off. The theater had been open only three months, and the center had been a resident since November 2019.

Work on renovations to the Smile House, the planned shelter, shut down at about the same time. Luginbill later released a statement saying he had been in denial about the amount of debt the projects had taken on.

The Luginbill Children’s Foundation became a target for a police investigation. Authorities have said little about the investigation, but have announced it focuses on what they termed “suspicious financial transactions.”

The investigation remains ongoing, though the foundation has been dissolved.

8. Illinois gang, Eau Claire murder

A March shooting in Eau Claire killed one person, and authorities said the victim and three suspects were all connected to a Chicago gang.

When police arrived at the residence on Kappus Drive, they found a woman with a gunshot wound to a leg and Edwin Garcia-Smith dead. The woman told authorities two men kicked in the back door, confronted Garcia-Smith and aimed a gun at him.

Authorities charged Juan Olivarez, Joe Moya and Ian Kearns, all of Illinois, with first-degree intentional homicide. Kearns died at an Illinois hospital in April.

The case against Olivarez and Moya is pending. Both have pleaded not guilty.

9. Eau Claire Children’s Museum closes, opens, closes (for now)

The pandemic dealt museums a harsh blow, forcing many to close. The Eau Claire Children’s Museum was among them, though it was able to reopen in July with limits on attendance.

Unfortunately, those limits meant the museum was losing money. So it shut down again in August and announced it would not reopen until after construction of the museum’s new home.

Museum officials released design illustrations for the new home at 126 N. Barstow St. in November. Plans call for a U-shaped building with a central courtyard. Executive Director Michael McHorney said the plans envision a “bolder, better and bigger” museum.

Hopes are high that the redesign will increase attendance at the museum as well. It attracted about 80,000 visitors per year before the pandemic, and officials think that could climb to 100,000 per year after the new facility opens.

10. Body found in a suitcase

Authorities made a disturbing discovery in October when a missing woman was found dead in a suitcase left inside an abandoned farmhouse in Wheaton.

Rosaly Rodriguez was last seen July 4. Her ex-husband reported her missing later that month. Authorities believe her body was left in the farmhouse sometime soon after she was reported missing. Chippewa County Coroner said she had likely been dead for at least two months at the time she was found.

While investigators have said they have a suspect, they have not yet made an arrest or named the suspect.

Good riddance 2020

When I was dating the man who would become my husband, I asked his middle son if he was tired of me hanging out at their house so often. “I like having you around,” Dan said. “You’re ...”

My relationship with Bruce’s children did not hinge on this one exchange, but years later I remember how Dan’s words hung in the air above us.

“You’re really ... cheerful,” he finally said. What teenager uses that term? I still get teary thinking of the moment I knew I’d won over a Taylor kid; the other two soon followed. Being a step-parent reminds me of the Emily Dickinson line: “The heart has many doors.”

A friend once called me the life of the party. I teased, “It’s the beer, Mary.” Truth is, I pride myself on not just being a happy person but someone who tries to spread that joy.

I was not always this way. As a sad sack kid my feelings were easily hurt, usually by one of my seven older siblings or a mean girl at school.

When I cried to my mom she pulled me onto the wide expanse of her lap and said, “You need to toughen up.” Little by little, I did. When I’m upset, I still hear her voice in my head.

If we considered the cast of “Winnie the Pooh” I am definitely a “Tigger,” bounding with endless optimism and grit. Not that annoying you-betcha-energy but full-on life source glee. Even my blood type is B positive.

2020 challenged me to the bone. I see how it has worn down the “Piglets” (constant worriers) and the “Eeyores” (diehard pessimists). More than one-third of Americans acknowledge COVID-19 is affecting their mental health. Isolation and anxiety are a terrible combination.

After a crisis, experts say the majority of adults experience “post-traumatic growth,” an increase in well-being. Consider how a job loss can lead to an unexpected, better path or an illness brings a family closer. Resilient people recognize they always have a choice in the matter, even if it’s how they react to a difficult situation. That glimpse of control is what Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl called “tragic optimism.”

The pandemic is not over, but we can anticipate the end is near. This is what I’m primed for in 2021.

Cultivating positive energy is a blend of realism and hope, compassion and thanks. Still, Yale University professor Laurie Santos says bluntly, “Our minds suck at happiness. They’re naturally wired for survival. ... You have to work at happiness.”

Recently a team of “genetics of joy” experts discovered 304 “happy genes” built into our DNA. That’s no surprise to those of us who live among Tiggers.

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky conducts research on what she calls “the architecture of sustainable happiness.” Half of the joy we feel is based on genetics, so that means all of us have a pre-determined “set point” which governs how content we are. People tend to return to that level no matter what happens to them. Lyubomirsky says, “Truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness.” In other words, half-full folks always report their glasses are midway to the top. Half-empties barely see the glass.

Surprisingly just 10% of our joyfulness can be attributed to external circumstances. That leaves a whopping 40% of our own gladness or misery within our control. There are many ways to increase our contentment. Some swear by exercising or being in nature, talking to friends or helping others. Science supports that the simple act of gratitude — focusing on what we do have and not what we do not — reaps rewards people often cannot imagine.

The night before Thanksgiving I received a text from a friend I see once a summer. Lori wrote, “Thanks for being in my life. Hope you find joy this holiday season.”

Though sad about spending the time without a packed house, I remembered what a typical Thanksgiving would be like: many hectic meals with different sides of the family. We’d be together but likely no one would say anything affectionate in a crowd, least of all me.

Lori’s message prompted me to send a short text to my loved ones: “I am thankful for a sister (or brother or niece or nephew or in-law or son or daughter or friend) like you.” I copied and pasted over 40 times.

My very first response made me question reaching out. “Day drink much?” my nephew shot back.

Nope, Mitch, not at 8:30 a.m., even on a holiday. Other texts soon followed: “What a thoughtful greeting” and “I am the grateful one.”

I received the stoic Midwestern “Back atcha” — twice from people who don’t know each other — and “same here” to “Aww, thank you” to “You make our family so fun.”

One friend wrote: “One day we will have a joyful reunion.” One in-law texted, “You are my favorite ... shhh, don’t tell the others.” This long-standing family joke likely would have been uttered across the table if we were celebrating in person but only to get a laugh.

After doing research on happiness I took my remote gratitude a step further. I recently sent a New Year’s postcard to loved ones with a short paragraph describing what I appreciate about them: my outspoken sister who makes me want to be bolder, step-daughter Laura and her husband who transformed their dream wedding into a safe celebration, friends who illuminate any room.

I realize I likely won’t experience the immediate back and forth response I did with my Thanksgiving message. Though entertaining and sometimes affirming, that’s not really the point.

Over a month ago when I texted Dan that I was thankful for a stepson like him, he wrote me: “You are one of the best things to happen to our family.”

I teased back, “What do you mean ‘one of’?”

He wrote: “Well, you know Laura and Ben picked a really awesome dog.”

New Year's revelries muted by virus

CANBERRA, Australia — This New Year’s Eve is being celebrated like no other, with pandemic restrictions limiting crowds and many people bidding farewell to a year they’d prefer to forget.

Australia was among the first nations to ring in 2021 because of its proximity to the International Date Line. It is a grim end to the year for New South Wales and Victoria, the country’s two most populous states, which are battling to curb new COVID-19 outbreaks.

In past years 1 million people crowded Sydney’s harbor to watch fireworks that center on the Sydney Harbor Bridge, but most will be watching on television as authorities urge residents to stay home.

Locations on the harbor are fenced off, popular parks closed and famous night spots eerily deserted. A 9 p.m. fireworks display was scrapped but there will be a seven-minute pyrotechnics show at midnight.

People are only allowed in downtown Sydney if they have a restaurant reservation or are one of five guests of an inner-city resident. People won’t be allowed in the city center without a permit.

Some harborside restaurants were charging up to $1,294 for a seat, Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported Wednesday.

Sydney is Australia’s most populous city and has had its most active local transmission of the coronavirus in recent weeks.

Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city, canceled its fireworks this year.

“For the first time in many, many years we made the big decision, difficult decision to cancel the fireworks,” Mayor Sally Capp said.

“We did that because we know that it attracts up to 450,000 people into the city for one moment at midnight to enjoy a spectacular display and music. We are not doing that this year.”

In notable contrast, the west coast city of Perth — which has not had community spread of the virus since April — was gearing up to celebrate the new year almost normally with large crowds expected to watch two fireworks spectacles.

New Zealand, which is two hours ahead of Sydney, and several of its South Pacific island neighbors have no COVID-19 cases, and New Year celebrations there are the same as ever.

In Chinese societies, the Lunar New Year celebration that falls in February in 2021 generally takes precedence over the solar New Year, on Jan. 1. While celebrations of the Western holiday have been growing more common in recent decades, this year will be more muted.

Beijing is holding a countdown ceremony with just a few invited guests, while other planned events have been canceled. And nighttime temperatures plunging to -5 degrees Fahrenheit will likely discourage people from spending the night out with friends.

Taiwan is hosting its usual New Year’s celebration, a fireworks display by its capital city’s iconic tower, Taipei 101, as well as a flag-raising ceremony in front of the Presidential Office Building on New Year’s morning. The flag raising will be limited to government officials and invited guests after a traveler who recently arrived in Taiwan was found to be infected with the new variant of the coronavirus.

The island has been a success story in the pandemic, registering only seven deaths and 700 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Hong Kong, with its British colonial history and large expatriate population, has usually seen raucous celebrations along the waterfront and in bar districts. For the second year running, however, New Year’s Eve fireworks have been canceled, this time over coronavirus rather than public security concerns.

Hong Kong social distancing regulations restrict gatherings to only two people. Restaurants have to close by 6 p.m. Live performances and dancing are not allowed. But crowds still throng shopping centers.

Much of Japan was welcoming 2021 quietly at home, alarmed after Tokyo reported a record number of daily coronavirus cases at about 1,300. It was the first time that daily cases in the capital have topped 1,000.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike asked people to skip countdown ceremonies and expressed concern about crowds of shoppers.

“The coronavirus knows no yearend or New Year’s holidays,” she told reporters.

Many people skipped what’s customarily a chance to return to ancestral homes for the holidays, hoping to lessen health risks for extended families.

Rural restaurants saw business drop, while home deliveries of traditional New Year’s “good luck” food called “osechi” boomed.

Emperor Naruhito is delivering a video message for the new year, instead of waving from a balcony with the imperial family as cheering crowds throng outside the palace.

Train services that usually carry people on shrine visits overnight, as well as some countdown ceremonies, were canceled.

Meiji Shrine in downtown Tokyo, which normally attracts millions of people during New Year holidays and is usually open all night on New Year’s Eve, closed at 4 p.m. this year.

In South Korea, Seoul’s city government canceled its annual New Year’s Eve bell-ringing ceremony in the Jongno neighborhood for the first time since the event was first held in 1953, months after the end of the Korean War.

The ceremony, in which citizens ring a large bell in a traditional pavilion when the clock strikes midnight, normally draws an estimated 100,000 people and is broadcast live.

Authorities in eastern coastal areas closed beaches and other spots where hundreds of thousands of people typically gather on New Year’s Day to watch the sunrise. The southeastern city of Pohang instead planned to broadcast live the sunrise at several beaches on its YouTube channel.

South Korea’s central government banned private social gatherings of more than five people and shut down ski resorts and major tourist spots nationwide from Christmas Eve until Jan. 3 to help bring a recent viral resurgence under control.

Millions of Indians planned to usher in the new year with subdued celebrations at home because of night curfews, a ban on beach parties and restrictions on movement in major cities and towns after the new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus reached the country.

In New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, hotels and bars were ordered to shut at 11 p.m. The three cities have been the worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Drones were keeping watch on people’s movements in Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment capital. Large gatherings were banned, but there were no restrictions on visiting friends, relatives and public places in groups of not more than four people, police said. Face masks and social distancing were mandatory, they said.

Many revelers flocked to Goa, a former Portuguese colony and popular backpacking destination with numerous beach resorts. Authorities decided against imposing a curfew with coronavirus infections largely controlled there.

In Sri Lanka, public gatherings have been banned due to a resurgence of COVID-19, and health and law enforcement authorities urged people to limit celebrations to close family members. Health officials have warned of legal action against hotels and restaurants that hold parties.

Officials have also closed schools and restricted public transport in response to the renewed outbreak.