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COVID takes over 2020

SEBRING – The year 2020 was ushered in with pageantry and champagne by an unwitting society. Little did we know what we were welcoming. The year that started off normally took a turn for the worse just a few short months later with in invisible enemy that would change our lives and world as we know it. Its name was COVID-19.

In March, the Florida Department of Health announced the first two cases of coronavirus. COVID was in the state and Floridians could not do much about it, except to follow guidelines set forth by the FDOH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There was no vaccine and the advice from the FDOH was to stay away form those who were sick, frequently wash hands, use hand sanitizers and clean surfaces. Face masks were not recommended yet.

The idea was to slow the spread of the virus by staying at home.

President Donald Trump declared a National State of Emergency on March 13.

March saw the drive-up test sights appear and later, drug stores would have drive-thru tests. The first case in Highlands County was determined March 22. Residents of Highlands could no longer think COVID-19 was something that happened other places. Local hospitals pitched triage tests to screen patients for the virus and possible treatment before entering the hospital. Only the patient was allowed in the hospital.

Highlands County schools took off for spring break and did not return to their brick and mortar schools the rest of the school year. By the end of March, the School Board of Highlands County switched to an internet based learning model.

On March 27 the Highlands News-Sun reported on the county’s first death attributed to the virus. At that time, there were only 27 deaths reported in the entire state. As of Wednesday, the county had recorded 201 deaths and the state had reached 21,857 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Toilet paper became a priceless commodity, although no one really knows why. Bleach, disinfectant sprays and hand sanitizers were almost as scarce.

On March 9 Governor Ron DeSantis declared the first state of emergency for Florida. It has been extended several times, the latest extension was ordered on Tuesday, Dec. 29 for another 60 days.

On March 17, DeSantis ordered bars and restaurants to close for dine-in services. Many restaurants adapted by using curbside take-out or delivery to try to stay afloat. With so many people laid off or out of work indefinitely, some restaurants gave out hot meals daily. Many ministries opened their pantries to feed even more people than usual.

As virus cases rose, DeSantis gave an executive order for “Safer at Home” on April 1. The order encouraged everyone to stay at home as much as possible and only go out for essential services. Senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions that would make them susceptible to the virus were urged to stay home to limit their exposure. The measures were put in place to slow the rate of the spread of the virus so the local health care system did not become overwhelmed. Terms like “lock-down” and “flattening the curve” became household phrases.

This opened the door for more people to work from home as only essential workers like first responders and health care workers. Eventually, visits to those in long-term care facilities had their visits suspended.

By the beginning of April, the CDC officials changed their stance on face masks; they recommended them. Several counties opted to mandate masks, however, Highlands County did not. On Sept. 22, the Highlands County Board of County Commission took up the issue of mandatory masks. They unanimously voted to have the county continue to follow the state lead on the matter, which is to recommend people wear masks, wash their hands as much as possible, practice social distancing and leave it up to local businesses as to whether or not they want to require masks.

Several citizens brought up the issue of mandatory masks at subsequent County Commission meetings, only to see any requests for mandatory masks denied.

DeSantis announced his plans to reopen the state with a three-phase approach called “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step.” at the end of April. The plan was mostly successful except for bars, which had to close again, and areas in “hot spots.”

In the fall, The School Board of Highlands County reopened the brick and mortar schools but continued to offer distance learning for those students who did not want to return to face-to-face learning. Later, some students who did not perform well with online learning were asked to return to face-to-face learning.

In October, many Halloween community parties were canceled and the switch to traditional trick or treating was done to avoid gatherings. The CDC recommended not having gatherings for the holidays or big parties. Instead, they recommended using internet apps to visit during the holidays.

In December, vaccines were initiated in the nursing home populations and will eventually be offered to the the general public as the vaccine supply is increased.

To help people, businesses and nonprofits who suffered financially from the pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provided $8 billion to Florida to help those affected by the pandemic. Money was to be distributed in three separate phases.

Highlands County received $4.6 million for Phase 1 and $3.6 million for Phase 2. Phase 3 funding, potentially, would exceed $10 million, on a reimbursement basis only.

Staff Writer Phil Attinger also contributed to this story.

Highlands touched by Black Lives Matter movement

SEBRING — The “Black Lives Matter” movement, begun with a hashtag in 2013 after the Feb. 26, 2012 shooting of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin, came to Highlands County in 2020.

It turned out that the county had a connection to another African American, 46-year-old George Floyd, who died May 25. 2020 after being arrested and pinned to the ground, his neck under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee. Transcripts of police bodycam footage record Floyd as saying more than 20 times he could not breathe.

In 1994 and 1995, Floyd played center and power forward on the South Florida State College Panthers basketball team, before going to Texas and then Minnesota. Coach George Walker, the Panther’s basketball coach for six years, remembered Floyd fondly as a good person and good athlete.

“He was just a regular student who would miss class now and then,” Walker said, “but other than that he was a good kid.”

On June 4, approximately three dozen high school seniors gathered at the corner of U.S. 27 and Sebring Parkway to support the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the wake of Floyd’s death. Avon Park High School Class of 2020 graduate Jaronda Terrell said the seniors “are trying to encourage the youth to be more involved in stuff like this.”

Debate raged on social media as well as local editorial pages in guest columns and letters to the editor. A white man married to a black woman expressed dismay that people fear him, for being white, and said Floyd and others like him would be alive if white.

A white woman in a guest column noted those who have racial privilege should help find solutions, in spite of the year’s harshly-divided political climate. Others, in letters or columns, reflected the election year divide, levying blame on opposing political parties and accusing protesters of wanting to destroy the nation. In this situation, social media posts by both a county commissioner and a police chief prompted further protest.

A racially-charged post on the personal social media page of County Commissioner Arlene Tuck drew a rebuke in September from the chair of the County Commission and calls from constituents for an ethics investigation.

Tuck, in turn, said she had no knowledge of the post before others told her and took it down. She suggested that her Facebook account was hacked, but that explanation did not satisfy many who spoke about it at the following commission meeting.

At the meeting, Tuck said she fully-understood racism as an Hispanic woman — a claim on which she has yet to elaborate. She also issued a challenge for those unhappy with her to run against her in two years, but offered no apology and has since refused to comment further on the matter.

On Oct. 11, the Rev. George Miller led a group of local residents in the first ever Rally for Support and Celebration of Diversity, which met on the Sebring Circle, then marched around the Circle and down toward the Highlands County Government Center.

Miller said his intention was “celebrating diversity and the fact that we can be diverse and unified at the same time.”

Meanwhile, Lake Placid Police Chief James Fansler, also called out for such posts on his social media account, spoke with concerned citizens, who later said they felt they had been heard and had come to an understanding. The town of Lake Placid suspended Fansler without pay from Oct. 12-19 as a result of the posts, and he promised to be more conscientious about such posts in the future.

Becker never found

SEBRING — Margaret Helen Becker went missing after she was last seen on Jan. 17, 2020 at Publix in the Southgate Plaza. When she hadn’t appeared after 10 days, her family and husband of 42 years, Fred, joined the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office at a press conference on Jan. 28 asking for the public’s help in bringing her back home.

There was no ping from her cell phone or signal from the OnStar system in the blue 2018 Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck she was driving.

At the press conference, Scott Dressel, public information officer for the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, said they received word from the Avon Park Air Force Range they were conducting operations that could cause disruptions with GPS signals.

On Friday, Jan. 31, officials learned a pickup matching the description of Becker’s drove past a manned guard house at 7:30 p.m. on the night she disappeared.

The truck was found the following day in the Kississimmee River about 30 feet from the boat ramp where the depths measured from 15-30 feet of water. The truck was found by Highlands County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials. The truck was still in Drive and the windows were still rolled down. Officials said the findings indicated Becker was still in the pickup truck upon entering the water. She was not in the vehicle when it was recovered from the river.

Her purse and cell phone were inside the truck and the phone worked after being charged, which gave law enforcement a more detailed view of her movements on the day she disappeared.

After spending nine days searching the Kissimmee River and surrounding area, HCSO called off the search on Feb. 10. Her body has not been recovered.

“We are very disappointed that we don’t have closure,” daughter Sheri (Becker) Unger said. “We wish she was with us or at least had proof that she was deceased.”

2020 election has record turnout

SEBRING — On Nov. 17, Highlands County had an almost completely new Board of County Commission, with four newly-elected commissioners who had not served on the board before, and the remaining commissioner having served just since 2018.

Kevin Roberts won the District 1 seat, Kathy Rapp won District 2, Scott Kirouac won District 3 and Chris Campbell won District 5. Arlene Tuck is the one incumbent, in District 4.

Each commissioner serves four years. Tuck’s term is up for re-election in 2022.

The last time the county turned over an almost entire board in one year was 2010, said Supervisor of Elections Penny Ogg.

That year, Barbara Stewart held the District 1 seat when Don Elwell, Jack Richie and Greg Harris took office. In 2011, Ron Handley was appointed to serve the rest of Jeff Carlson’s term.

Jim Brooks was elected to Stewart’s old seat in 2012 and Tuck defeated Richie’s bid for a third term in 2018. This year, Brooks and Handley opted not to run again, Harris was defeated in the primary by Campbell, and Elwell lost his bid for Clerk of Courts.

The 2020 election was also unusual for many reasons, not the least of which was a contentious presidential election involving allegations of election fraud, the necessity of confirming the vote count and an unusually high voter turnout, especially in early and mail-in voting.

With 40,108 ballots cast before Election Day in early and mail-in voting, roughly 60.5% of the county’s 66,317 eligible registered voters voted early. The final turnout, as of the end of election night, was 52,196 or 78.71% of registered voters.

It beat the record 75.29% turnout from the 2016 general election. Estimated voter turnout for the nation this year ranged from 66.4% to 72.1%, putting Highlands County in the middle of that average.

An increase in mail-in ballots was expected, given the level of safety they present against contracting the COVID-19 virus. However, dispersion cast on such ballots by the Trump campaign necessitated additional checks on the ballots at the local level.

Ogg completed a manual audit with accuracy enviable in some races for the Nov. 3 general election: They matched the automated tabulators exactly.

“The numbers are perfect to the paper ballots,” Ogg said. “Everything matched 100%.”

The canvassing board certified local election results on Nov. 13, and Ogg considered the Nov. 3 election done.

It was not finished on the national level, however, as the Trump campaign did not concede the election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, whose popular vote county stood at 81.28 million to Trump’s 74.22 million, and who carried 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232.

The electoral college gave Biden a decisive majority on Dec. 14, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly congratulated Biden and Kamala D. Harris, incoming vice president. Also, on Dec. 11, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Texas lawsuit that sought to void 20 million votes in four other states, finding that Texas lacked standing to intervene under the U.S. Constitution, Article 3.

The president, attorneys general in 17 states and nearly two-thirds of House Republicans, including almost all from Florida, signed on to the lawsuit.

Election day did not go without issues. Highlands County elections staff got phone calls from early voters about a truck broadcasting campaign messages over loudspeakers. Staff at the Elections Office said motorists “can’t be near the voting site with that going on.”

They also got calls about a truck with campaign flags on it, but that is allowed as long as the driver goes in to vote and then leaves.

Nucor Steel completes mill starts production

AVON PARK — Nucor Steel may have been slowed slightly during the pandemic, but the massive effort to complete the rebar producing mill met its goal to start production in the fourth quarter of 2020.

The mill, just north of the Highlands/Polk County line, began producing steel products for the construction industry on Dec. 12.

Some of the numbers reveal the scope of the new steel plant – cost to construct the 620,000-square-foot plant was around $240 million, 235 employees, producing up to 350,000 tons of steel products annually.

The plant is in Polk County, but almost within walking distance from Highlands County.

The plant is believed to be Polk County’s largest industrial development since 1975, according to a September Lakeland Ledger report.

The mill will be using the abundant supply of scrap metal in Florida to recycle into new steel products that will supply the region’s construction market.

Overall, Nucor is the largest steel and steel products producer in the United States with a steelmaking capacity that exceeds 27 million tons annually.

Nucor and its affiliates are manufacturers of steel and steel products, with operating facilities in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Products produced include: carbon and alloy steel – in bars, beams, sheet and plate; hollow structural section tubing; electrical conduit; steel piling; steel joists and joist girders; steel deck; fabricated concrete reinforcing steel; cold finished steel; precision castings; steel fasteners; metal building systems; steel grating; and wire and wire mesh.

The company is North America’s largest recycler.

Nucor was number 139 in the Fortune 500 list of America’s largest companies with more than $22 billion in revenue in 2019.

Nucor has 27,000 employees working at more than 300 operating facilities in North America.

Happy Holidays

In honor of the holidays, the Highlands News-Sun office will be closed today, New Year’s Day.

In today’s edition, you will see the top 10 stories to bring 2020 in Highlands County to a close.

We hope your holidays are peaceful and safe.