- Cover Design by Alex Zuniga
Everybody knows that the COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest story of 2020, with social and political tensions coming in a very close second—and almost certainly intertwined with the pandemic. Although California also had another record fire season in 2020, SLO County thankfully didn't. The happiest county on the California coast made national news several times this past year with SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson's and District Attorney Dan Dow's stance against Black Lives Matter protesters and COVID-19 regulations, the arrest and prosecution of protest leader Tianna Arata, and COVID-19 positive case numbers taking up the bulk of that national attention. Local residents seemed to take issue with everything—facing each other in the streets with protests and anti-protests, bickering online in divergent Facebook groups and catty Instagram stories, shouting about COVID-19 regulations or a lack thereof, and actively calling for elected officials to resign over their alleged behavior on social media. Those beefs were often fueled by the spread of facts, rumors, half-truths, and lies on Facebook and other platforms, leading to tense city elections, especially in the city of SLO. And the pandemic continues, as do social and political tensions. So who knows what 2021 will bring?
COVID-19 upends life on the Central Coast
To say that COVID-19 was the story of 2020 would be, well, a major understatement. The novel coronavirus originating out of China swept through the Central Coast and California in multiple waves this year—infecting thousands and killing dozens locally, while disrupting just about every aspect of life.
The public health response to the crisis was slow out of the gate: In early March, San Luis Obispo County received just a single test kit from the Centers for Disease Control. On March 14, the county confirmed its first case. Since then, the virus has reached more than 9,500 residents, hospitalized upwards of 450, and killed 70 as of press time.
Gov. Gavin Newsom's initial stay-at-home order proved effective in slowing the virus' spread in SLO County and beyond, as California became an early leader in how to "bend the curve." But as the year wore on, citizens' patience wore thin. Convoluted and often-changing state regulations confused and frustrated residents and business owners. Officials sent mixed messages about the effectiveness of masks and the risks of various activities. Bars opened while schools stayed closed. Amid it all, the virus broke loose in two devastating waves that spanned the summer and fall, leading to thousands of deaths in California and a new stay-at-home order to end the year.
Locally, SLO County residents and families coped with threats to their health and employment, school closures, food and housing insecurity, and much more. Hundreds of companies either scaled down operations or closed for good. Local municipalities lost millions of dollars in tax revenue. And while for months the county fared relatively well with the virus, COVID-19 cases soared to record levels in the fall with the start of the Cal Poly school year—the beginning of an outbreak that's only grown in the ensuing months.
As 2020 comes to an end, the Central Coast is in its most precarious position of the pandemic, recording all-time highs in daily cases and hospitalizations. With widespread distribution of COVID-19 vaccines still months away, this historic and tragic story of 2020 will spill over well into 2021.
- File Photo By Jayson Mellom
- PROTESTING CHARGES As national protests called for police reform, a July 21 protest in SLO led to the arrest of activist Tianna Arata, who garnered support asking SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow to drop the charges against her.
Protesting for justice
The death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the end of May sparked outrage and protests calling for police reform across the nation. San Luis Obispo held several protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement from June to September with two ending chaotically. Dressed in riot gear on June 1, San Luis Obispo police officers deployed pepper balls and tear gas to disperse a crowd that gathered outside the department. The following month, a march led by Tianna Arata on July 21 made its way through the downtown area and onto Highway 101, blocking traffic and sparking outrage in many—including San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow, who called the protest unlawful on social media (the post has since been removed). Arata was arrested after the march ended and the crowd dispersed. The DA's Office charged her with 13 misdemeanors. Elias Bautista, a member of the Santa Maria Youth Abolitionist group, was charged with one felony count of resisting an officer and two misdemeanors. In October, Dow charged six more protesters in relation to the July 21 march: Marcus Montgomery, Amman Asfaw, Joshua Powell, Robert Lastra Jr., Sam Grocott, and Jerad Hill. Arata's attorneys filed a motion to disqualify the entire District Attorney's Office from prosecuting the case against their client, citing Dow's personal and political bias. On Dec. 11, SLO Superior Court Judge Matthew Guerrero came to the conclusion that (among other incidents of bias toward the protests) two emails seeking campaign donations less than 48 hours after the charges were filed against Arata, were enough to remove Dow and his office from the case. The case is now in the hands of the California Attorney General's Office, which has yet to decide whether to take it on.
- Screenshot From Slo County Protest Watch Facebook Page
- DIVIDED TOGETHER SLO County residents were divided on many issues this year and those differences spilled onto social media.
The great divide
Social media interactions surged this year, especially when it came to arguing about wearing a mask, whether COVID-19 is real, Black Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter. Groups created private social media pages for people with like-minded ideologies—SLO County Protest Watch, ReOpen SLO County, Protect Paso, Protect Five Cities, Protect Atascadero, Protect Santa Maria, and TakeBack SLO. The groups talked about one other, shared videos of what they saw as wrongdoing, and called each other names (such as "sheeple"). Some of the social media ire spilled out onto the streets. For instance, in June, Grover Beach and Arroyo Grande residents tied ribbons around city-owned trees after an active shooter incident in Paso Robles to support local law enforcement who were injured while responding. The act sparked a back-and-forth between Blue Lives Matter supporters and those supporting Pride month. Videos shared on social media showed residents placing rainbow-colored ribbons around blue ones, taking down rainbow ribbons in retaliation, and confronting each other as they placed the ribbons. Grover Beach reminded residents that the trees were private property and residents weren't allowed to place anything on them. "It was unfortunate that the city had to step in and do this, but given what was transpiring, we felt that we had to step in as a city and really call time-out and urge people to show their support for their causes—be it law enforcement, first responders, Black Lives Matter, and other causes—on their own property," Grover Beach City Manager Matt Bronson said.
- File Photo By Jayson Mellom
- READY TO RIDE Trucks line up outside the entry to the Oceano Dunes SVRA on Oct. 30, the first day vehicles were allowed in the park after a seven-month closure.
A different dunes debate
Like most years, 2020 was filled with fighting over the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) and the impacts vehicles have on the environment inside and surrounding the park. But when COVID-19 hit locally and State Parks closed the SVRA to vehicles on March 26, Central Coast residents had a unique opportunity to see what the beach could be like without vehicles and off-roading tourists. The temporary closure led to a renewed battle between off-roaders and conservationists, the former who argued that riding in the park offered an easy and safe way for people to stay sane during the pandemic, and the latter who said keeping the beach closed would give nesting snowy plovers a chance to breed in successful numbers. Without vehicles in the area throughout the spring, snowy plovers built nests outside their "seasonal exclosures"—designated breeding areas that are off limits—and State Parks had attempted to prevent plovers from nesting in those areas in preparation for reopening. State Parks agreed to keep the Oceano Dunes closed to vehicles through Oct. 1 in a consensual cease-and-desist order with the California Coastal Commission. In the order finalized on July 7, State Parks agreed to halt a number of development activities that the commission claimed were unpermitted and possibly harmful to plovers. Hundreds of vehicles entered the park on Oct. 30 when it officially reopened to street-legal vehicles for the first time in months. Despite a statewide surge of COVID-19 cases, State Parks has no known plans to close the park to vehicles again.
- File Photo By Jayson Mellom
- A SHOCK San Luis Obispo County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill's sudden death in August sent shockwaves through the community.
Supervisor Adam Hill suddenly passes away
Veteran San Luis Obispo County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill's sudden death on Aug. 6 sent shockwaves through the county in the middle of an already traumatic year. The supervisor, who'd just won reelection to a fourth term in March, had a long-documented struggle with depression, and a coroner's report determined his death a suicide. Remembered for his work on homelessness, the economy, and the environment—as well as his ability to attract unending controversy—Hill left a sizable leadership vacuum with his passing. Former SLO County Planning Commissioner and state Assembly candidate Dawn Ortiz-Legg filled the vacant seat in December upon appointment by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Learning from a distance
When SLO County's schools first announced plans to close in mid-March, it was a Friday, and within the window of a weekend, administrators, teachers, and parents were forced to adapt to an entirely new model of education largely being carried out online. Teachers transformed their classrooms to virtual forums, administrators worked to identify families in need of computers and wireless internet, parents were suddenly tasked with schooling their children from home, and most extracurricular activities came to grinding halt. The transition was especially tough for some, including parents who can't work from home and those whose children have special needs. When summer rolled around, a number of SLO County's school leaders started mulling ways to safely reopen their schools for in-person instruction, and several applied for and received waivers to reopen through county Public Health. Though a number of districts had plans to reopen for some in-person instruction in November and December, schools are now grappling with a post-holiday surge in local and national cases of COVID-19 and other logistical issues.
- File Photo By Jayson Mellom
- A HELPING HAND Paul Andreano, a volunteer with Hope's Village of SLO, hands out food to people living near the Bob Jones Trail, a popular homeless camp.
Unsheltered in place
The COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 an especially tough year for those experiencing or on the brink of homelessness, and officials throughout SLO County struggled to offer services that struck a balance between public safety and public health. SLO County and city officials repeatedly came under fire for continuing to carry out homeless camp cleanups throughout the pandemic, despite Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance stating that people living in homeless camps should be allowed to remain where they are to prevent further spread of coronavirus. On May 18, SLO city officials and police officers forced dozens of individuals living in a camp near the Bob Jones Trail to move along so that human waste and trash dangerously close to the SLO Creek could be removed. While officials pointed to empty beds in the 40 Prado Homeless Services Center, and COVID-19 specific programs like those for safe parking, showering, and isolating in trailers and hotels throughout the county, homeless advocates say it's safest for those without homes to stay where they're already established, where they can avoid the outbreaks that have been common in congregate living facilities. Now, thanks to state COVID-19 relief funds, Paso Robles is on track to have its first homeless shelter up and running this winter.
- File Photo By Jayson Mellom
- DEMOCRATIC DUTY Despite the pandemic, voters broke the SLO County turnout record in the Nov. 3 election.
November election proves historic
Election officials nationwide confronted an unprecedented task this year: to administer a safe and secure presidential election at the height of a pandemic. Not only did SLO County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong and his team pull it off, but local voters showed up in record numbers. Out of an all-time high 184,050 registered voters in SLO County, 88 percent turned out for the Nov. 3 election, easily topping a previous record set in 2008. To adjust to the pandemic, every voter received a mail-in ballot and had a choice of 19 drop-box locations beginning in early October. Four days before Election Day, the county also opened up in-person polling centers. As the results were finalized and the historic nature of the effort sunk in, Gong took to calling the election "one for the ages."
Local election results proved less eventful than the candidates' campaigns. In San Luis Obispo, city races quickly turned contentious as COVID-19's economic impacts and Black Lives Matter protests shaped the debates. The lion's share of attention went to the mayoral race, where incumbent progressive Heidi Harmon beat out leading challenger Cherisse Sweeney, a business owner, in what became a bitter battle between factions in the city.
At around 3 a.m. on June 10, 26-year-old Mason Lira opened fire at the Paso Robles Police Department, shooting Sheriff's Deputy Nicholas Dreyfus, 28, in the face. A manhunt for Lira ensued that included the Paso Robles Police Department, the SLO County Sheriff's Office, SWAT, and the Special Enforcement Detail. Hours later, Paso police discovered the body of a 58-year-old male with a fatal gunshot wound to the head near the Amtrak Station at 8th and Pine streets. SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson speculated during a press conference that there was a "general theme floating around the nation of anti-law enforcement." But he added, at that point, all law enforcement could say was that the attack was unprovoked. The manhunt ended on June 11 with Lira's death and more injured law enforcement officers. He was killed during a shootout with responding officers in the Paso Robles riverbed area. Lira was a transient from the Monterey area, had been in and out of jail and treatment centers, neglected to take his medication, and often believed he was a special agent or soldier. His father, Jose Lira, told the Associated Press that his son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Asperger's syndrome, and attention deficit disorder.
SLO police chief exits amid controversy
Facing mounting criticism over the SLO Police Department's handling of Black Lives Matter protests and for her role in several high-profile cases lingering from 2019, SLO Police Chief Deanna Cantrell left her post in September to take the police chief position in the city of Fairfield. Cantrell's departure came amid calls for her resignation. She faced backlash over a decision to deploy tear gas against protesters in a June 1 demonstration and for the arrest of Tianna Arata, a young Black organizer who'd led a march onto Highway 101 in July.
Cantrell's four-year tenure first took a rocky turn in 2019 when the chief left her loaded gun in the bathroom of El Pollo Loco. Cantrell's and the department's search for the weapon drew further scrutiny, as it prompted officers to search a county home without a warrant. A few months after that, she came under fire when a SLO police officer shot and killed a family dog—a case that recently ended in a $70,000 payout to the owners.
SLO is currently undergoing a nationwide search for its next chief—a process that will surely make more headlines in 2021 as the city promises to improve its climate for underrepresented residents.
Podcast reinvigorates Kristin Smart case
In 2018 Central Coast native Chris Lambert began researching the unsolved disappearance of Kristin Smart, a 19-year-old Cal Poly student from Stockton who didn't make it back to her friend's apartment from a party in 1996. In an effort to get a comprehensive understanding of who Smart was before she vanished, the events leading up to her disappearance, who Paul Flores—the last person to see her—is, and what was currently happening with the case, Lambert conducted interviews with Smart's parents and friends, an LA Times journalist, the SLO County Sheriff's Office, and other individuals who knew Smart or Flores. In 2019, Lambert released six episodes of a podcast called Your Own Backyard that garnered local support and landed in the Top 10 on Apple's True Crime podcasts in November of that year. The podcast pushed the SLO County Sheriff's Office to publicly update the community of the state of the case. In 2020, Cal Poly removed failing grades from Smart's transcripts, and the Sheriff's Office served a total of four separate search warrants in SLO County, Los Angeles County, and Washington state. The searches were conducted at the homes of Paul Flores and his father, mother, and sister. Lambert released his eighth episode of the podcast in November 2020.
- File Photo Courtesy Of Blake Andrews
- NOT FORGOTTEN Phil and Joanne Ruggles are shown at their surprise 50th wedding anniversary party in August 2018. Phil died a little more than a year later, after having an aortic dissection, a typically fatal event that couldn't be treated because he was on a blood thinner.
Tenet Healthcare and Dignity Health—a national for-profit and national nonprofit hospital system, respectively—own all five hospitals in SLO County and Santa Maria as well as a network of local outpatient services, clinics, and physicians. The two systems impact the care Central Coast residents receive in innumerable ways. That includes cost, and according to a 2020 New Times investigation of the cost of local health care, Tenet and Dignity made three times more revenue on third-party payers—like those on an employer-sponsored plan—than they did on Medicare patients in 2018 on a per-inpatient day basis. Locals and health care experts told New Times that the larger, highly integrated systems are using their market leverage to receive higher reimbursements from private insurance providers, which they say raises the overall cost of health care and causes anticompetitive impacts. The systems also largely control what services and medications are available to the Central Coast, as SLO resident Joanne Ruggles discovered when her husband, Phil Ruggles, died of an aortic dissection in the fall of 2019. Treatment typically requires emergency surgery, and Phil sought help at French Hospital Medical Center. There, Joanne said she was told that Phil couldn't go into surgery immediately because he was on Eliquis, a new-era direct oral anticoagulant used to prevent blood clots. While there is an antidote, Andexxa, which almost instantly reverses the effects of Eliquis, Joanne said she was told that French Hospital doesn't keep it on-site. Phil died while en route to another hospital in Los Angeles, and Joanne spent much of 2020 working to get the word out about Andexxa and the little known dangers of blood thinners.
Improvements at North Oak Park Boulevard
Grover Beach residents finally made some headway in their longtime push for safety improvements on North Oak Park Boulevard—but only after a life was lost on the notorious road. Arroyo Grande resident Justin Kissinger was hit and killed on Jan. 21 while attempting to cross North Oak Park Boulevard on foot, just minutes before a Grover Beach City Council discussion on possible changes at the intersection was scheduled to take place. Community members were outraged when Grover Beach City Council postponed that discussion to await the results of an investigation into the incident. Though investigators determined that it was Kissinger's dark clothing and alcohol intoxication that likely led to his death, the accident underlined complaints Grover Beach residents have had for years about stretches of North Oak Park that they say are confusing and dangerous for both drivers and pedestrians to navigate. In April, Grover Beach City Council approved several changes to stretches of North Oak Park that city staff said would make the roadway safer for bikers, pedestrians, and drivers.
- Photo Courtesy Of Mountainbrook Church Instagram
- INVESTIGATIONS Mountainbrook Church pastor Thom O'Leary resigned amid allegations of inappropriate behavior, and church members wanted more transparency during the investigation.
Moutainbrook pastor resigns
Following investigations into alleged inappropriate behavior in late 2019 and a paid leave of absence, Mountainbrook Church officials announced the resignation of former lead pastor Thom O'Leary and his wife, Executive Pastor Sherri O'Leary, on Feb. 2, 2020. The all-male church board emailed a resignation statement to the church community and local media outlets. The board stated that "credible allegations of inappropriate behavior" against Thom prompted the board to hire a third-party investigator shortly after the allegations were brought forward. The investigation found "those concerns" of inappropriate behavior "toward certain women" to be valid, but the specifics of the allegations remain unclear. Thom wrote a letter to church members stating that he repented for "three sins," including: 1) excessive drinking in social settings, 2) overly hugging and touching the butts of three female staff members, and 3) texting women privately for an extended length of time. Mountainbrook Church parishioners said they were unhappy with the lack of transparency throughout the process, the lack of acknowledgement of Thom's victims, and overall communication about the issue. Δ
Reach New Times staffers through the editor at email@example.com.