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The year that was
As 2020 comes to a close, join WUFT News in looking back on some of the stories that defined the year. Here’s a glimpse into some of the stories that made headlines this year:
The year started off with reporters traveling from Gainesville to the state capitol to follow and report on bills as they moved through the legislative session, such as one of the first bills to be signed into law that kept any homeowners association or community entity from preventing a law enforcement office to park a marked vehicle at their homes.
WUFT reporters nationalized a Florida story when the Senate voted to support SB 646 — a bill proposing that student athletes at Florida universities be compensated for their brand. Florida joined the likes of states like California in proposing that student athletes have the opportunity to be paid during their collegiate career. The bill headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis in March, he signed it in June, and it took effect in July.
Our Fresh Take Florida state government reporting team also followed the journey of Florida’s felon voting rights amendment. Passed in 2018, the amendment saw a resurgence this year after the Florida Supreme Court agreed with DeSantis that released felons had to pay off all fines before voting rights could be restored. Reporters followed the case all the way to a federal appeals court in Atlanta in February and kept up with the case through the summer.
In March, the United States came to a standstill as COVID-19 cases started to appear before beginning their rapid rise.
WUFT reporters explored how organizations large and small would handle the pandemic. One of the largest continuing storylines was in education, including the University of Florida’s decisions to briefly move classes online before doing so for all of spring and summer semesters, followed by faculty protesting returning to an in-person setting for the spring 2021 semester.
At the end of the fall semester, UF was ranked nationally for COVID-19 cases on college campuses. Despite the university and county officials encouraging students to forgo partying and wear a mask, some students chose not to abide, saying that they were a “very low risk group.”
WUFT was able to tell the story of people caught in the middle of the pandemic early on, like Jessica Brar, a Gainesville woman who became stuck in Peru after the country implemented a mandatory quarantine to stop the spread of COVID-19. She was only allowed to leave her hostel for food, medicine or doctor visits. Brar resorted to doing her laundry in her bathtub. When she looked to the U.S. Embassy for help, she described feeling abandoned by them, while others staying at the hostels felt supported by their embassies. Brar said it took five days to get a response from the embassy.
In addition to schools closing and travel plans suspended, many businesses felt the impacts of the pandemic. Regal movie theaters in Gainesville — the only ones in town to offer first-run movies — were forced to close in October after Regal’s parent company announced that it would close its 536 locations across the U.S., only seven weeks after reopening.
The pandemic didn’t hurt every business, and in fact, it helped one in particular. Bicycle shop owners said they hit record high sales during March, April and May.
Similarly, one of our reporters spent time at a local skate park to see people participating in another popular quarantine hobby. People from 6 to 60-years-old used skating as a way to combat boredom in quarantine. Gainesville’s Samurai Skate Shop said it struggled to keep up with the high demand of customers wanting skateboards.
“It’s a strange phenomenon because kids that normally would be doing ball sports are starting to pick up skateboards because it’s perfect for social distancing,” owner Billy Rohan said. “They can still go out and have fun as a group but still maintain their distance from each other.”
After the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was fatally suffocated by a white police officer, racial unrest and reform developed across the country, including in north central Florida.
In Newberry, about 100 people gathered to march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Event organizer Alena Lawson worked in law enforcement for more than 25 years. She said that she organized the event because she was sick of explaining to Black children why they needed to be more cautious in their lives.
“’The Talk’ is no longer about sex,” she said. “It’s about what it’s like to be black in the community.”
A little less than a month after Floyd’s death, UF President Kent Fuchs announced that the school band would no longer play popular game chant “Gator Bait” at football games because of its ties with “horrific historic racist imagery.” In the same email announcement, Fuchs outlined the university’s plan for the next year, including how the administration would be working toward combating racism on campus.
In September, Floyd’s aunt and uncle visited UF virtually to speak with students about police brutality and white privilege. They said they have been traveling the country to participate in protests and speak to audiences in order to survive their grief of watching Floyd and other Black people across the country die at the hands of police.
After days of waiting to see who would be the first candidate to reach 270 electoral votes, Joe Biden’s margin increased enough to become the next president-elect of the United States. It didn’t come without controversy, though. Across the country, supporters of President Donald Trump demanded recounts and filed unsuccessful legal challenges over vote counting.
In Alachua County, about 30 people gathered in front of Gainesville City Hall to challenge President Donald Trump’s efforts to contest the presidential election results. Organized by the local branch of Socialist Alternative, speakers at the event said that even after the election has been certified, the fight for equality is not over.
“No matter who is in the White House,” Fi Stewart-Taylor, a UF Graduate Assistants United union organizer, 28, said. “Our real fight is to make sure that in our communities everybody’s fed, everybody’s safe, everybody’s housed, everybody has what they need to have to live a good life.”
Across Florida, inmates were closely following the general election race to see who would win the presidency. Most of their eyes were on Joe Biden, who as a U.S. senator largely wrote and pushed through Congress the 1994 crime bill, which established tougher prison sentences for federal crimes and more aggressive policing. As a presidential candidate, Biden has pledged to reduce the number of people in prison and eliminate what he called racial, gender, and income-based disparities in America’s justice system.
“A lot of us are here because of what he did,” said Weyman Bowers, 55, who is serving a 15-year sentence at Marion Correctional Institution in Ocala because of theft, burglary and assault offenses. “His supporters believe he’s going to fix his mistake, but only time will tell.”
In Bradford County, Will Hartley won the race for superintendent of schools as a non-party affiliate candidate, despite running against a Republican incumbent in a traditionally GOP county. In Bradford, more than 70% of voters cast their ballots for President Trump.
Despite the negative connotations many people have come to associate with 2020, we worked to spotlight the good of the year when possible.
In March, one of our reporters sat down with a local Gainesville group to celebrate 100 years of women having the right to vote. Gainesville Women for Equal Rights was once the state’s second-largest civil rights organization. GWER helped to integrate many local places such as the College Inn, the Boys Club and Alachua General Hospital.
In July, the Americans with Disabilities Act celebrated its 30th anniversary. UF graduate Delaina Parrish, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at two, launched a lifestyle brand called “Fearless Independence,” assisted in developing a student organization, collaborated with brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Vera Bradley, and tested technology for Tobii Dynavox.
“The biggest thing I learned throughout my time at UF was advocacy, not only for myself but for others as well. Diversity and inclusion go hand in hand at Florida and I feel accepted here and allow the independence,” Parrish said.
Two years ago, Chris Nikic couldn’t run a mile. In November, Nikic became the first person with Down syndrome to race in an Ironman triathlon. He said he lives off the philosophy of getting 1% better every day. Nikic’s dedication to get 1% better every day has helped him on his historic mission, and this achievement was the Maitland man’s first step of more to come beyond the finish line.