We will not soon forget 2020.
In a year that featured the most momentous presidential election of any of our lifetimes and the most widespread protests for social justice since the 1960s, there was really only one top story: the coronavirus pandemic.
Coronavirus, and COVID-19, the disease it causes, seared itself into the consciousness of the entire region in early March, as southern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut lay smack in the middle of two of the earliest virus hot spots, Boston and New York.
On March 9, Rhode Island had declared a state of emergency in anticipation of virus cases — which then stood at just three — surging. Schools began postponing trips and mulling the implications of protecting their students. Westerly Hospital announced it had a plan in place to treat those who tested positive.
By March 14, two Westerly schoolchildren tested positive, and schools announced they were closing for a week to plan for something called "distance learning." Summer residents starting streaming into their second homes looking to evade the virus that was quickly proliferating in the cities, prompting Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo to enact mandatory quarantines enforced by the National Guard. Life spiraled into a permanent dark cloud.
Back then, nobody knew where this crisis was going to lead. Certainly, no one could have imagined the stark toll this pathogen would take on our country. As of Saturday, 20.3 million cases had been confirmed in the U.S., with 348,992 deaths. Rhode Island has seen 87,949 cases and 1,777 deaths. Connecticut's toll is 185,708 cases and 5,995 deaths.
Everyday life was transformed. Hand sanitizer, face masks, hand-washing and social distancing became part of the daily routine. Lockdowns and restrictions on gathering kept us away from our families, friends, and in many cases, our workplaces. Unemployment soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Town business started to be conducted via Zoom and Google Meet. Graduations were held via drive-by or drive-through.
The small businesses, arts and entertainment venues, churches, bars and restaurants, even fishermen were all stopped in their tracks. They are, truth be told, still thwarted as we live through the second wave of infections after a relatively calm summer. The virus also took a disproportionate toll on senior citizens and those prone to depression or susceptible to domestic violence.
In a region whose identity is intertwined with tourism and outdoor events and gatherings, one after the other, from early spring to late fall, nothing has looked or felt the same since those bleak days in March. There was no Virtu Art, no Summer Pops, no Spring- or Fallfest, no real beach season. There were no nights where downtown Westerly was packed with throngs of people hopping from bar to bar, or packed audiences at the Kent Performance Hall. Weddings, receptions, parties ... all gone or severely restricted.
Through it all, our police officers, firefighters, medical workers and other essential workers have been there, putting themselves at risk to hold the fragile shards of our society together and get help for those who have needed it. We have seen our towns and nonprofits step up in a big way to work together to meet a skyrocketing need for food and housing during the pandemic.
Now that vaccines are starting to be distributed, we can envision life getting back to normal. In 2021, we can begin to heal the scars inflicted by 2020.
— Corey Fyke
2. Black Lives Matter protests
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, protests spread across the nation, including several organized in downtown Mystic, along Route 2 in Pawcatuck and in downtown Westerly.
One month after the civil rights demonstrations, the focus turned to the Stonington area following an incident in which two white New York residents were accused of assaulting and injuring a Black hotel clerk at the Quality Inn Mystic on June 26. The suspects were able to avoid arrest, seeking hospital treatment and then returning to the hotel in a Lyft before leaving the region in their own vehicle.
The lack of an arrest brought a negative spotlight on the town's police department, with several groups organizing on behalf of the victim, Groton resident Crystal Caldwell, and criticizing police for allowing the suspects to go free. The department obtained a warrant and the two were arrested three weeks later, and the department later cleared its name when a town investigation completed in October determined that while there were policy lessons that could be learned, there was no wrongdoing or malice by officers.
Westerly, which had seen weekly protests at the post office throughout the summer, found itself in the spotlight in August after vandals sought to damage the Columbus Statue in Wilcox Park at a time when Columbus and Confederate statues were being taken down nationwide. The vandals were identified and arrested quickly, however, and the intended acts led to an October resolution in which members of the council agreed to fund further security measures to protect the statue.
— Jason Vallee
3. Westerly rights of way and beach access
Access to the shoreline, a perennial issue in Westerly, seemed to receive a sharper focus in 2020 than in the recent past. Whether it was parking spaces near the water in Weekapaug or a spirited debate over the status of an old paper road with many names in the same enclave, the Town Council and municipal staff were kept busy with questions about access. The issue also flared up in Watch Hill when a new resident erected a fence and signs regarding a dune restoration project of dubious origin on East Beach. The fence drew a cease-and-desist order from the state and the East Beach Association clarified that its emblem had been placed on the signs without the association's consent.
Complaints from both residents and others who enjoy local beaches and waterways ultimately led the council to formally request an inquiry by the state Coastal Resources Management Council into the Spring Avenue right-of-way to determine whether it should be considered a public path to the shoreline or private property. The council also asked CRMC to study the Waters Edge Road right-of-way in Watch Hill, and Town Manager J. Mark Rooney was able to secure a commitment from the state Department of Environmental Management to clear a path adjacent to the fishermen's parking lot next to the Weekapaug Breachway. The work was recently completed and has spurred new complaints about large rocks being moved.
Rooney also set about having several well-established rights of way surveyed and marked with sturdy granite posts and new signs. The posts, it is hoped, will provide an enduring signal of areas the public is welcome to walk across to exercise their right, as established by the state Constitution, to roam along the coast.
— Dale P. Faulkner
4. Westerly school buildings
In the aftermath of a failed school building project that voters rejected in the fall of 2019, officials worked this year to develop a new plan. After a halting start that saw the Town Council vote against filing a preliminary application with the state Department of Education and then changing its collective mind to allow the submission, the work started only to get pushed off track, like so many other things, by the coronavirus pandemic. Eventually, the School Committee's Building Subcommittee regrouped and resumed its work.
Along the way, the School Committee, in February, voted to close State Street Elementary School, but then rescinded the vote a few days later and decided to keep the school operational. A few days later, School Committee member Diane Chiaradio Bowdy resigned her position as chairwoman of the committee. The committee stuck to its decision in May to remove all public schools-related programs from the Tower Street School Community Center when the Town Council suggested doing so would free up money it cut from the committee's 2020-21 budget. The district had been slowly moving its and other programs out of the Tower Street building, but the decision to completely vacate sparked concern in some corners and a scramble to find new locations for some programs.
The Town Council voted quickly to sell the Tower Street School and bids to demolish the building were sought. Fast forward to the new year — the Tower Street building remains standing, Chiaradio Bowdy is once again School Committee chair, and the School Building Subcommittee, having received several proposals from residents, is working to develop one or more plans informed by the submitted ones for consideration by the School Committee and the Town Council.
— Dale P. Faulkner
5. Westerly Comp Plan and zoning regs
Work to revise the Comprehensive Plan, which started in 2015, picked up speed in 2020. The Town Council dedicated meetings to reviewing a draft of the new plan submitted by the Planning Board and later conducted a public hearing before sending parts of the plan back to the Planning Board.
A proposal to change a provision in the plan to allow commercial recreation facilities in the town, with planning and zoning approval, "future residential uses on the property to ensure continued vitality" continues to draw sharp criticism, particularly from residents who live near the Winnapaug Country Club golf course. The owners of the club, who worked with the Planning Board to develop the proposed language, have said they must add a housing component and possibly a hotel to the course property to keep their business viable. Otherwise, the property owners caution, the golf club could close and the property used entirely for housing.
Proposed revisions to the municipal zoning regulations also met with mixed reviews. Town officials initially labeled the revisions as a "zoning stimulus" intended to help pull the town out of the economic doldrums caused by the pandemic and later acknowledged the changes were broader. Some of the changes would streamline processes and bring the regulations into alignment with state law. Other changes are related to proposed revisions of the Comprehensive Plan.
— Dale P. Faulkner
6. Hopkinton solar battles
In a town besieged by solar energy applications, officials and residents continued to grapple with proposed commercial solar projects, making solar, once again, the most contentious issue facing the town in 2020.
Several members of the Town Council opted to retire in November, leaving openings for three new councilors. The new council President, Stephen Moffitt Jr., Michael Geary and Robert Marvel all pledged to oppose the practice of rezoning residential neighborhoods to commercial in order to allow the construction of industrial-scale solar projects.
The two reelected members, Scott Bill Hirst and Sharon Davis, also promised to fight such proposals in residential zones.
The council will begin the year considering amendments to the town’s solar energy ordinance, and there are also several solar proposals looming. They include a solar array on the former Stubtown landfill, which has not been the target of protests because of the suitability of the brownfield site.
Other projects, such as the “Stone Ridge at Hopkinton” application for a 252-acre solar site on Palmer Circle, and the Main Street-Gray Lane proposal, would be located in commercial zones and permitted by right, although the designation of the Palmer Circle zone has been challenged.
The new council is expected to be less amenable to zoning and Comprehensive Plan amendments to accommodate commercial solar projects.
— Cynthia Drummond
7. Turbulent year for Stonington Board of Education
Pandemic challenges aside, 2020 proved to be a trying year for Stonington Public Schools, and particularly the Stonington Board of Education.
Board members were tasked with responding to an angry public and ultimately called for an investigation into complaints regarding the handling of alleged sexual harassment by former Stonington High teacher Timothy Chokas that led to his resignation in 2019.
While the incident was still under investigation, discord between members of the Stonington Board of Education and other private matters led to the July resignation of the board’s chairwoman, Alexa Garvey, and secretary, Candace Anderson. Former board Chairman Frank Todisco was appointed to fill Anderson’s seat and within a few weeks, he was appointed to the familiar chairman's seat.
By early September, the board was given some reprieve when Attorney Christine L. Chinni’s six-month independent investigation found no wrongdoing on the district’s part. There were concerns in the report, however, regarding the manner in which Chokas was dismissed, with recommendations on how to improve the district’s response to any future allegations.
— Jason Vallee
8. Decision 2020
In perhaps the most momentous Election Day of any of our lifetimes, the nation's focus was on the presidential race. But there were plenty of local races that had the potential to shift the balance of power. And of course, the coronavirus played a part, as there were a record number of early mail-in and in-person votes cast in both Rhode Island and Connecticut.
After the dust settled, in Westerly, the incumbent town councilors running for reelection were voted back in, with former councilor Philip Overton voted back into the mix, with Sharon Ahern, the top votegetter, later voted president. In Charlestown, the council underwent a significant makeover, with three members of Charlestown Citizens Alliance and two members of Charlestown Residents United winning seats from a field of 11 candidates. CRU member Deborah Carney was voted president. Three newcomers were elected to the Hopkinton Town Council, including new president Stephen Moffitt Jr. Three new members were elected to the Richmond Town Council in a non-competitive race that featured five candidates for five seats.
In Rhode Island legislative races, the incumbents — Dennis Algiere (38th Senate District), Elaine Morgan (34th Senate), Blake Filippi (36th House), Sam Azzinaro (37th House), Brian Patrick Kennedy (38th House) and Justin Price (39th House) prevailed, and Heather Somers retained her 18th District Senate seat in Connecticut. The real surprise was Greg Howard upsetting Kate Rotella in Connecticut's 43rd House District on the strength of a strong showing in North Stonington.
— Corey Fyke
9. Westerly Hospital Pharmacy
Westerly Hospital completed a $4 million renovation to its pharmacy that yielded a state-of-the-art facility for the hospital's internal operations. The new pharmacy meets industry standards, including those required for developing chemotherapy drugs for cancer patients in the hospital's Smilow Cancer Care Center.
Mark Rogers, director of pharmacy at both Westerly Hospital and L+M Hospital in New London, said the new pharmacy would serve as a model for the Yale New Haven Health system. The system purchased Westerly Hospital in 2016 and promised to continue the upgrades started under L+M's ownership. The new 2,632-square-foot pharmacy is about one-third larger than the previous one that was constructed in 1925.
The new pharmacy follows the opening of the the Smilow Center and a geriatric psychiatry wing in 2019.
— Dale P. Faulkner
10. St. Michael’s School moves to West Broad
While school closures and distance-learning efforts dominated spring and summer headlines, St. Michael School in Pawcatuck garnered attention as administrators, staff and families navigated pandemic challenges on the way to opening in the fall at the school’s new home in the former West Broad Street School building. The opening followed the opening of the new St. Michael the Archangel church in the spring as the pandemic first took hold.
The school opened its doors for classes with a full return in September, and the new location provided the small, private school with ways to better address safety needs related to the coronavirus while expanding offerings for its students.
Dennis Perkins, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel church, said parents and staff kept a "can-do" attitude that made the move possible. Further, the move was aided by the town and school officials reaching a deal in January prior to the start of the pandemic that rented the property to St. Michael’s for a base rent of $300 per month for three years. The lease also holds a mutual option for two-year extension.
— Jason Vallee