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Top stories of 2020 | Part 1

At the end of the year, the Journal of the San Juans takes a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. Watch for part two in next week’s edition.

We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel affected our communities the most.

1. COVID-19 and San Juan County

It would not be a recap of 2020 without mentioning the biggest global news story of the year — COVID-19.

China first reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in the city of Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei Province, on Dec. 31, 2019, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, and by Jan. 7, 2020, the country’s authorities confirmed the cluster was associated with a novel coronavirus.

Though the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the United States was in a patient located just 60 miles away from the islands in Everett, Washington, reported on Jan. 20, the first case in San Juan County wasn’t reported for another two months. Since then, a total of 78 county residents were diagnosed with COVID-19 as of Dec. 28.

Between mid-August and mid-October, the county’s confirmed COVID-19 cases did not increase. The majority of COVID cases identified in San Juan County have occurred since Oct. 14, with 46 people being diagnosed in the past two and a half months.

On Feb. 29, Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed a state of emergency for all counties in the state, placing limits on gatherings, businesses, leisure activities and travel.

San Juan County Council declared a state of emergency on March 13, then, on March 25, Public Health Officer Dr. Frank James, M.D., signed an order closing all playgrounds, transient lodging, ports and marinas in the islands, limiting them to “essential business” service only. On June 3, James opened transient lodging to 50 percent and then lifted the restrictions entirely on Sept. 10.

Around the time that San Juan County introduced its own restrictions, the state laid out a four-phase plan to return life to pre-COVID normality, loosening regulations over time. San Juan County made it as far as from Phase One — a near-total lockdown of services — to Phase Two before phases were paused due to a second wave of infection.

At midnight on May 15, San Juan County’s face-covering mandate went into effect, more than a month prior to Inslee issued a statewide order on June 26. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had suggested Americans voluntarily wear cloth masks in the beginning of April, but earlier in the pandemic, the CDC was discouraging it because of low amounts of personal protective equipment available for health care workers on the frontlines.

The Washington State Department of Commerce announced on May 8 that the county would be receiving $943,250 from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. In September, the county was granted an additional $343,000 from the Department of Commerce and $343,000 from the Department of Health.

While most of the CARES Act funding went in filling gaps in the county’s budget which experienced a $1.061 million shortfall due to COVID. The county earmarked a total of $157,000 of the money it received to be granted to community businesses.

The Town of Friday Harbor and the islands’ airports also received funding from the federal government via the state. The town designated $30,000 of its $108,900 it received to business grants as well. Additionally, the Port of Friday Harbor received $1.055 million; Orcas, $1.041 million; Lopez, $30,000; and Friday Harbor Sea Plane Base, $20,000.

2. Local election brings changes

Christine Minney and Cindy Wolf won the November 2020 election to represent San Juan and Orcas, respectively, on the San Juan County Council for the next four years. Their terms begin in January 2021.

For San Juan County Council District 1, Minney beat Ryan Palmateer with a total of 5,992 votes, 51.61 percent.

For San Juan County Council District 2, Wolf beat incumbent Rick Hughes with 6,201, 52.39 percent. Hughes previously held the position for two terms.

Voters also approved commissioners for the Charter Review: Dave Anderson, Bill Appel, Kyle Davies, David Dehlendorf, Paul Dossett, Patty Garcia, Richard Grout, Maureen See, Thomas Starr, Sharon Abreu, Janet Brownell, Tony P. Ghazel, Kevin Ranker, Olivia Roseberry, Anne Marie Shanks, Jane Fuller, Liz Lafferty and Robert A. O’Connell.

3. Fire and EMS merger continues

The ongoing talks of integrating San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services with San Juan Island Fire and Rescue slowed to a crawl in 2020 for reasons beyond the pandemic.

In May, the San Juan County Public Hospital District No. 1 Board of Commissioners suspended, by unanimous vote, the integration of the two entities. Until “such time as the governing bodies of both organizations agree to resume discussions,” commissioners said in a press release. At the top of the list, which contained “many reasons,” according to the commission, was the postponement of the annexation of the Town of Friday Harbor into the fire district. The vote for annexation was initially to be included in the April 2020 election but the COVID pandemic resulted in the recall of that measure. The board’s resolution stated, “the financial impact of the COVID-19 emergency will not be known for some months and perhaps years, and financial forecasts and a comprehensive management plan are not currently available as the situation requires. … Stable leadership and management of SJIEMS is essential to successful delivery of emergency medical health care services within its district.”

In April 2019, a Citizen’s Advisory Group concluded in a 117-page report that the SJIF&R and SJIEMS should integrate into one agency within two years. The five members of the CAG were selected by the fire district, SJI EMS and the Town of Friday Harbor in April 2018 to consider the merger.

Following the recommendations of the CAG, an integration steering committee was formed to work out the final details. On Nov. 12, 2019, three out of five public hospital district commissioners — all of whom are no longer on the board — voted to approve an interlocal agreement with the fire district to begin merging of the two entities’ administrative departments. The only commissioner who continues to serve on the new board is Anna Lisa Lindstrum, who had originally voted against the ILA. SJIFR released a statement that it was disappointed with the PHD’s decision. That disappointment spilled over into a joint meeting of the fire district and hospital district commissioners in July.

Seventy-six minutes into the meeting, SJIF Fire Commissioner Frank Cardinale allegedly called PHD Chairperson Lindstrum an expletive. This slight has sewn more distrust between the boards as evidenced by discussions at recent PHD meetings. However, the board has discussed the desire to find a way to continue discussions with the fire district regarding a future merger.

4. Local radio legend dies

San Juan islander and former Seattle DJ Pat O’Day died surrounded by family at his island home on Aug. 4. He was 85.

“The Pacific Northwest will always seem a little empty without legendary Pat O’Day,” wrote Jeff O’Day, Pat’s son, in a Facebook post announcing his father’s passing. “All we can do is focus on the incredible role he had in making the Emerald City a better place to live, and the difference he made in people’s lives.”

According to an article by the Washington Secretary of State’s office, O’Day was born Paul W. Berg on Sept. 24, 1934, in Norfolk, Nebraska.

O’Day felt his birth name didn’t have any “magic” to it and he felt more like a Pat than a Paul, the SOS article stated. On New Year’s Day 1960, O’Day went on air with KJR for the first time, a station that would be his home for the next 15 years.

In a 2001 essay for HistoryLink.org, author Peter Blecha called O’Day the founding father of the Northwest rock and roll scene. O’Day was Seattle’s highest-profile DJ in the 1960s.

O’Day became a big proponent of the Schick Shadel Hospital’s 10-day aversion therapy program after walking in with an addiction to alcohol, cocaine and marijuana in 1986 and walking out, never to touch any of them again.

In 2012, O’Day was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which turned out to be benign.

Jeff O’Day said in his post that while his father had beat lung cancer, it had wreaked havoc on his lungs.

“He knew the gifts he had been given and how spectacular his life had been. Dad was ready,” Jeff O’Day wrote.

O’Day leaves behind his wife, San Juan Island Attorney Stephanie O’Day, and his four adult children — Jeff, Garry, Jerry and Kelsey.

5. Local hospice was nearly in peril

In late October, the future of Hospice of the Northwest was in peril.

For more than 30 years, San Juan County residents in the last stages of their lives have turned to the public agency, which is owned by Skagit Regional Health Care District 1 and United General District 304. The two districts were considering selling it to Bristol Hospice, a for-profit subsidiary of Webster Equity Partners, a Massachusetts-based private equity firm.

HNW has been serving Skagit, Island, San Juan and Snohomish Counties since 1989, providing access to nursing, medical, social and spiritual professionals.

Employees of HNW and San Juan County hospice volunteers and residents voiced strong opposition to the sale, asserting the impending sale could result in substantial changes to coverage for island residents.

On Dec. 18, the boards of the health care districts voted to discontinue further consideration of a potential purchase agreement for Hospice of the Northwest.