There's no doubt 2020 will be remembered as the year of the pandemic.
When the coronavirus first surfaced in March, there was an unspoken expectation that it would peter out by the beginning of summer at the latest. But as 2020 slinks out the door, COVID-19 (the disease caused by coronavirus) had the city, state and country on the run, overflowing hospitals and killing record numbers of people.
Approval and delivery of vaccines in the last weeks of December offered a glimmer of hope. But grim experts said the crisis would continue for months before vaccines will be generally available.
While the disease, and the economic impact of societal shutdowns in an attempt to stop it, sucked most of the oxygen out of the room, there were other newsworthy topics in 2020 — events that require review. The presidency, national election and its aftermath, coupled with the COVID-19 surge nationwide, dominated national news.
This review will bring the year down to a Long Beach level.
COVID In Long Beach
Long Beach officials have stressed since March that it has its own Health Department, issuing its own Coronavirus orders. However, the city has followed Los Angeles County restrictions almost to the letter, along with enforcing all state restrictions.
That wasn't much of an issue going into the summer as restrictions gradually eased, reopening beaches and parks as well as allowing restaurants and bars limited business opportunities. Even so, the pandemic remained top of the news, with infections and deaths continuing, and a ban on all crowds shutting down live entertainment and team sports.
It got personal for Mayor Robert Garcia in late July, when his mother died of the disease and his step-father followed a week later. At least partially for that reason, Garcia attracted national attention, including a short appearance during the virtual Democratic National Convention.
As COVID continued to spread, the economic impact grew exponentially. Restaurants struggled mightily, with some closing completely and others trying to limp along with take-out and delivery. In August, a program allowing parklets — seating areas covering parking spaces in front of restaurants — made outdoor dining viable, and boomed along restaurant corridors. Downtown, the idea expanded further, closing two blocks of Pine Avenue completely.
Still, the city watched its revenue pot disappear, with sales tax slowing to a trickle. Fiscal 2021 budget planning started with a deficit estimate of $25 million to $40 million. The budget passed in September with across-the-board cuts and furloughs for almost all city employees.
Garcia and the City Council kept trying to help, passing eviction moratoriums, rent increase rules and waiving fees ranging from business licenses to street sweeping tickets. After a campaign at the state capitol, Long Beach received $40 million in federal aid, and the city doled it out based on council-set priorities.
Then the predicted second wave arrived in late fall, and the state got involved again, imposing restrictions based on levels of infection, then on the number of available ICU (Intensive Care Unit) beds. Those restrictions shut bars and eliminated all on-site dining, among other things, prompting a protest from restaurateurs and others that continues today.
City icons were impacted, with the Aquarium of the Pacific closing completely in March, allowed to reopen outdoor portions of the campus in the summer, then forced to shut down completely again in the fall. The Queen Mary tried to stay open in the spring, but closed in the summer. The operator and lease holder, Urban Commons, has been silent since that closure, and has been the topic of two closed sessions of the City Council in December.
By the end of the year, two vaccines began to be distributed, offering some hope. At the same time, ICU beds throughout the Southland were almost all filled. Christmas and New Year's Day were (for the most part) celebrated virtually, if at all.
A movement that began on Memorial Day and has yet to lose steam likely will have more long-lasting impacts on society than the pandemic.
The nationally-televised murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer brought to a head the building unrest with deaths of Black people at the hands of police. Protests spread across the country, including Long Beach.
What started as a peaceful demonstration on Memorial Day in Long Beach devolved into a riot as the sun went down in downtown Long Beach (and many other cities). Multiple buildings were vandalized and looted, with millions of dollars in damage. Long Beach police, apparently trying to avoid violence, took a passive approach to enforcement. Multiple arrests were made in following months, however.
Black Lives Matters groups organized countrywide, including Long Beach. Demonstrations continued through June, with many calling for the "defunding" of police.
The city government, with three Black men on the City Council, along with two Hispanics, approved multiple studies and programs designed to improve equity, and to look at all government programs "through an equity lens." The push to defund police failed, although the department's budget was cut along with the rest of the city departments.
Nonprofits took up the cause, and in a bit of good news, the push to create an African American Cultural Center made significant progress. And the first-ever Cambodian to serve on City Council was elected in November, when Suely Saro defeated longtime incumbent Dee Andrews to represent the Sixth District.
Education On Remote
All three of the major Long Beach education entities — the Long Beach Unified School District, Long Beach City College and Cal State Long Beach — shut campuses down in March as part of the first Stay at Home orders. All attempted to shift to remote learning, teaching classes online, to finish the school year. But graduation ceremonies were cancelled (diplomas and certificates were awarded remotely) and all extra-curricular activity shut down.
Online education was the rule at all levels when school resumed this fall. LBCC attempted to conduct in-person classes where necessary, and LBUSD offered very limited in-person education for special needs students.
As it became clear some students were finding online classes difficult, if not impossible, to complete, a push to reopen LBUSD campuses grew from some parents. That was countered by other parents and teachers, saying it would be dangerous particularly for teachers, to reopen. As the year ended, LBUSD officials announced no campuses would open before March 1; Cal State Long Beach said it would be fall 2021 before in-person classes would resume.
As the country ends the year with a presidential election still on the front page, A new Long Beach City Council has settled in. And while there's no screaming about voter fraud, other issues, two candidates in particular, gave Long Beach plenty of news fodder.
In the primary election, a semi-controversial extension of a 1% sales tax passed by a razor-thin 16 votes after trailing from the first vote count report on election night. The Los Angeles County Clerk/Recorder's office declined to declined to conduct a recount, a group called Long Beach Reform Coalition started a sponsored recount, but stopped the process after a couple days due to cost.
Long Beach's primary moved from April to March in 2020, after a decision to follow the state's schedule. The real impact came from moving the city's general election from June to Nov. 3. That meant eight months of campaigning for those in a runoff election.
There were contested elections in the Second, Sixth and Eighth council districts; the Second District runoff became more of a brawl than a contest.
Incumbent Jeannine Pearce declined to run for a second term, leaving a wide-open field. Community activist and City Hall critic Robert Fox came in first in a large field for the primary. City Hall-backed Cindy Allen made the runoff, finishing second.
Fox and his campaign immediately went after Allen, first saying she did not live in Long Beach because she owns a home in Fountain Valley. Later in the long campaign, they added complaints that she had not really divested herself of the advertising agency she owned before deciding to run for office. That agency had several contracts with the city.
Allen responded by charging the Fox campaign with improper and illegal surveillance and other activities. A disgruntled Fox campaign worker provided more ammunition when he said he had participated in some of the activity. Both filed charges against the other at the state Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). Nothing has come out of those charges at deadline.
Allen ultimately defeated Fox with a 1,500-vote margin. She joined Saro and Eighth District Councilman Al Austin (the incumbent) winning seats.
There also were changes at the Long Beach Unified School District board, where Felton Williams and Jon Meyer resigned, and the Long Beach Community College Trustee board, where Doug Otto stepped down after winning one of the two vacant LBUSD seats. Herlinda Chico replaced Otto at LBCC; Erik Miller took the other LBUSD seat.
A Bridge To The Future
One bright date for the year was Oct. 2, 2020. That's the day the Gerald Desmond Replacement Bridge (a new name has been promised) opened.
The second-largest cable-stay bridge in the country took seven years and about $1.46 billion to build. Creative and sometimes brand-new construction methods kept the original Gerald Desmond Bridge open, allowing cargo from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to continue to move, carrying 15% of the nation's cargo.
The new bridge was built higher — 205-foot clearance — to let larger ships into the port's inner harbor. It has three lanes and an emergency lane in each direction, compared to the old bridge's two lanes each way. It is outfitted with LED color-changing lights along each of the 80 cables and the infrastructure, making it a landmark day and night.
LBCC's trustees were feuding even before 2020 began, at least partially over the school's president/superintendent, Reagan Romali. Romali, who started at LBCC in 2017, had publicly gone after jobs at other colleges, and had other issues with trustees. She was fired on March 4. Lou Anne Bynum, a former LBCC vice president, was brought in as acting president; she's still in that position.
In less controversial changes, Dr. Jerry Schubel retired after 18 years as president and CEO at the Aquarium of the Pacific. He left on July 31, leaving the keys with Dr. Peter Kareiva. Randy Gordon retired after 26 years as president and CEO of the Greater Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, making way for his handpicked successor, Jeremy Harris.
On the business side, Mark and Maralyn DiPiazza sold their restaurant and retired after 36 years of booking live bands and serving Italian cuisine. Steve Guillen, former owner of Iguana Kelly's, has taken over. On Second Street, Marsha Jeffer has served on multiple boards while owning the Shore Business Center, aka Mailboxes Etc., for 28 years. She sold the business this year, and retired.
Perhaps the biggest transition of the year, at least physically, took place at the Long Beach Airport. JetBlue Airlines, the dominant carrier at Long Beach for nearly two decades, announced in July it would stop flights here. JetBlue had sought the right to fly internationally from Long Beach, but were turned away in 2017. All of JetBlue's flight slots were taken immediately, primarily by Southwest Airlines. Southwest now is the dominant carrier here.
Coronavirus and COVID-19 are sure to continue dominating the news, at least for the first few months of 2021. As vaccines become more widely available, the news should be a bit more positive as time passes.
The Grunion will be there to chronicle that and all the other news in 2021. We'll see you then.
Happy New Year.
Note: This story was updated to include the opening of the Gerald Desmond Replacement Bridge.