Top stories of 2020

1. COVID in 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. Islanders join BLM movement

In early summer, islanders on Orcas, Lopez and San Juan joined thousands of people in cities across the nation and the world to protest police brutality — specifically against Black people — in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who was 46, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25.

Floyd, a Black man, died after three police officers held him down as they arrested him for an alleged forgery, one pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Floyd pleaded that he could not breathe for nearly six of those minutes. One officer held back witnesses who filmed the interaction. Floyd fell into unconsciousness at the scene and was pronounced dead at the hospital, according to Minneapolis police. Four officers were fired and ultimately charged as a direct result of Floyd’s death.

The first event held was on Orcas, wherein more than 100 islanders gathered on the Village Green in solidarity with Black Lives Matter marches across the country. On June 1, a cross was erected on the San Juan County Courthouse lawn to honor Floyd and acknowledge the loss of other Black lives to police brutality and racially-motivated violence.

On June 5, a march through Friday Harbor was planned by community members to honor Black lives. The march ended at the San Juan County Courthouse lawn where more crosses with the names of Black people who’ve lost their lives in such a manner were placed. Those crosses remained until July 17, when a ceremony to respectfully remove them was held based on a suggestion by islander William Blackmon, who is Black.

Signs were also raised on Lopez Island, but those particular signs experienced repeated vandalism. In late June, community members painted 28 signs memorializing lives lost to white supremacy in the United States. Shortly after their construction along the side of Fisherman Bay Road, someone pulled all of them out and left them laying on the ground.

The second person to vandalize the signs did so in broad daylight, was filmed and was arrested on assault charges, see the “Lopez man vandalizes BLM signs” section for more information. The following day, the signs were once again vandalized, destroying all but two of the signs.

On Sept. 6, the community gathered to respectfully remove the signs along the road.

3. Lopez man vandalizes BLM signs

A Lopez Island man said he attempted to destroy a Black Lives Matter memorial in retaliation for repeated vandalization done to his Trump 2020 sign.

Deputies asked the San Juan County Superior Court to charge Laverne Dwight Lewis, 78, with two counts of assault in the second degree; two counts of reckless endangerment; one count of malicious mischief in the third degree; and one count of harassment. The matter was later moved to the district court where it will go to trial on Jan. 21 and 22.

On the afternoon of Aug. 12, 2020, deputies responded to a report of malicious mischief in progress in the 1900 block of Fisherman Bay Road on Lopez, where a series of Black Lives Matter memorial signs have been located since June. The memorial was previously vandalized in late June, but no one was charged with a crime.

Witnesses told deputies that Lewis had reportedly used his excavator — which was equipped with a flail mower — to destroy several of the signs. Lewis allegedly used the mower to threaten two witnesses who attempted to stop him.

According to the probable cause statement, Lewis then exited the excavator and yelled at the witness about the “goddamn liberals painting over his Trump sign.”

Lewis reportedly told the deputy that he intended to destroy a Black Lives Matter sign every time his Trump 2020 sign was vandalized. The deputy stated in the probable cause that earlier in the day, he had responded to a report of vandalism at Lewis’ house regarding the Trump sign, which had been painted over.

Lewis was arrested and booked into the San Juan County jail on the day of the alleged incident.

4. New calves born to J Pod

Two calves were born into the J Pod of Southern Resident orcas in 2020.

On Sept. 4, researchers spotted a calf with 10-year-old Tahlequah, J35, the mother orca who, in 2018, carried her dead calf more than 1,000 miles over 17 days on her head throughout the Salish Sea before letting it go. The new calf, J57, has been affectionately named Phoenix.

According to The Whale Museum, “Phoenix’s name represents that which can overcome the odds. … There was concern that J-57 would not survive. In spite of all the odds, he did and has continued to thrive. He joins his brother, Notch (J-47), who is a very attentive big brother.”

Later that month, researchers spotted a new calf — who was ultimately named Crescent, J58 — on Sept. 24 with its mother Eclipse, J41, who is 15 years old and has two offspring – the new calf Crescent and Nova, J51.

Prior to the birth of Phoenix, the last healthy Southern resident orca calf to be born was more than a year prior in May 2019.

5. First Asian giant hornet nest located and eradicated in Washington

At the end of 2019, Asian giant hornets were spotted on Vancouver Island in Canada, and later in Washington state — the first being in Blaine. The news spread throughout the country in May, though the first living Asian giant hornet was not captured in the United States until July.

The largest hornet in the world, three to four times larger than a yellowjacket, is native to the temperate and tropical areas of East Asia, South Asia, mainland Southeast Asia and parts of Far East Russia. The hornets grow between 1.5 and 2 inches long and have large, cartoonish sly prominent eyes on their orange-yellow head, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Their abdomen is like that of a yellowjacket — yellow and black striped.

The insect’s habit of decapitating and eating honeybees earned it the nickname “Murder Hornet.” The Asian giant hornet is typically only aggressive toward people if it feels threatened, between 30 and 50 people in Japan die from the hornet’s sting, according to the United States Department of Agriculture — either from receiving a multitude of stings or by having an allergic reaction.

Theories as to how the hornets arrived in the Pacific Northwest include either accidental introduction — either by riding a cargo ship from Asia or in someone’s belongings — or they were brought on purpose. A number of travel magazines and food blogs explain the protein-pact insect is able to be consumed in a variety of ways.

In late October, WDSA entomologists were able to track three hornets back to their nest using radio trackers. The next was located in the cavity of a tree on private property and contained 98 hornets, according to the WSDA.

“The eradication went very smoothly, even though our original plan had to be adapted due to the fact that the nest was in a tree, rather than the ground,” managing entomologist Sven Spichiger said in a press release. “While this is certainly a morale boost, this is only the start of our work to hopefully prevent the Asian giant hornet from gaining a foothold in the Pacific Northwest. We suspect there may be more nests in Whatcom County.”