COVID-19 Dominated News in 2020

It is obvious what the biggest news story of 2020 was in Southern Ocean County as well as the rest of the world.
COVID-19. So much so that 2020 was almost two years – pre-COVID and post-COVID. This article will be written in much the same way.
It is interesting, though, to see what occupied the minds of Southern Ocean County residents in January, February and early March before COVID reached the area. Yes, Virginia, there was a world before COVID. Our concerns – some of which continued through the year – feel almost quaint now. Gee, to return to that time!
No. 20: Bumps in the Road. Potholes are a common complaint in municipal meetings throughout the land. But in January people on LBI were particularly upset over the state of Long Beach Boulevard.
“I get aggravated every day when I drive my car on Long Beach Boulevard,” a man wrote to The SandPaper on Jan. 29. “Last month family members and I traveled in four states (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts) and Long Beach Boulevard is one of the worst streets I was on.
“Recently, I spent over $1,000 fixing all of the knocks and rattles my car acquired. The shock and strut assemblies (whatever the heck they are), and stabilizer link assemblies had to be removed and replaced.”
This writer agreed. In a Feb. 26 column I asked a question – “Which has more patches, Long Beach Boulevard or Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors?”
LBI’s roads are still in terrible shape, as anyone driving onto the Island these days can tell you, thanks to work on Route 72 East.
No. 19: No Hurricanes. No news can be good news.
The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record, with 30 named storms, 13 of which developed into hurricanes, six breaching the Category 3 level to become major hurricanes, and one, Iota, attaining Category 5 strength. When you have to reach into the auxiliary list of Greek names to keep up with the pace of storms, you know something is going on climate-wise.
Luckily no hurricanes veered towards Southern Ocean County, but in August Tropical Storm Isaias left thousands of local residents without power, knocked out traffic signals on the Island, causing monumental traffic backups, and tore down the big top tent Beach Haven’s Surflight Theatre was using for its performance space in the age of COVID. Still, it wasn’t as bad as Sandy. But considering that 2020 was the fifth straight year of above average Atlantic hurricane activity you have to wonder how much longer LBI can remain lucky.
No. 18: “Locals” Win an Oscar. Wow! The film “American Factory,” which was the closing movie in the Lighthouse International Film Festival’s 2019 season, won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. But that wasn’t the film’s only connection with Southern Ocean County.
It turns out one of the movie’s directors, Julia Reichert – although she was working out of Ohio while filming “American Factory” – and her family have Southern Ocean County connections. Julia’s nephew Jeff Reichert, who was one of the film’s producers, spent much of his youth in the LBI region. Indeed, his mother helps run the Lizzie Rose Music Room in Tuckerton.
As for Julia, she told SandPaper reporter Monique M. Demopoulos that she fondly remembers her childhood summers on LBI.
“My parents used to rent a little apartment right off Cooney’s Dock (in Holgate). It was very simple, with a screen door. My dad got a boat, called the Dorothy, and did a lot of sport fishing out of Barnegat Light. We were a little isolated, but I loved it. It was the best life for kids.”
What makes Julia’s story especially touching is that she was battling cancer while directing “American Factory,” a study of an Ohio plant owned by a Chinese billionaire.
“What I have is incurable and fatal,” Julia told Demopoulos in March. “There are new treatments all the time. I’m on a break from chemotherapy. Right now I’m feeling great, and I seem normal. But nobody knows how long they really have.”
No. 17: Bass River to Little Egg Harbor. School consolidation is all the rage in New Jersey as districts battle losses in state aid. A good example – the Bass River Township School District. On March 25 the district’s board of education, by a 5-0 vote, decided to ship off its elementary school students to the Little Egg Harbor School District starting in September 2020.
The decision wasn’t forced by COVID-19. Instead the decision was based on a declining enrollment, cuts in state aid and a dwindling tax base.
Expect this story to be higher up on the list of top stories in 2021. A study is currently being conducted on consolidating the Little Egg Harbor, Tuckerton, Bass River and Eagleswood Districts with the Pinelands Regional District in the interest of cost-saving. And the state will likely soon be pressuring the Long Beach Island and Beach Haven school districts to consolidate with the Stafford Township and Southern Regional school districts as well. The Island districts will probably resist that effort, and they have much larger tax bases than Bass River, but the state can penalize them greatly with larger cuts in state aid.
No. 16: Justin Cherry. Justice often moves slowly.
In a year where questionable police actions made national news, a long-running investigation of a Tuckerton police Cpl. Justin Cherry finally came to a close.
On Jan. 29, 2014, Cherry followed Wendy Tucker from Tuckerton through three other police jurisdictions to Barnegat where he released his K-9 officer Gunner on her as she was being arrested by Barnegat officers. He said he had initiated a slow-speed chase because she had eluded him as he attempted to pull her over for having a suspended driver’s license. Cherry also said he released his dog because the Barnegat officers had drawn their guns while attempting to arrest Tucker and felt they could be in danger.
Cherry had been suspended without pay since April 14, 2014. In 2019 he was exonerated of all charges when the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office failed to make a criminal case of assault stemming from the incident.
But Cherry’s problems weren’t over. Tuckerton Police Chief Brian Olsen and the borough filed 16 disciplinary charges against him and fired him on April 16.
The borough’s problems weren’t over either. In May, Tuckerton adopted an emergency appropriation to bond $184,000 to pay for legal expenses related to Cherry’s criminal prosecution and disciplinary hearing.
No. 15: Plastics. It may be difficult to remember when you’re trying to stay alive in the age of COVID, but plastic bags were a hot topic throughout 2020.
A quick glance through all of the year’s issues showed bans – or removing bans – on plastic bags may have been the second most covered story in The SandPaper in 2020 behind a flood of COVID reports. I’m not going into the details, which could fill an entire issue of this paper, but I will say this: Get used to it.
In November Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that will prohibit the use of not only plastic bags but paper bags in all stores and businesses in New Jersey starting in May 2022. You can forget disposable food containers and cups made out of polystyrene foam as well. Starting in Nov. 2021 restaurants can only provide plastic straws on request.
“Plastic bags are one of the most problematic forms of garbage, leading to millions of discarded bags that stream annually into our landfills, rivers and oceans,” said Murphy on signing the bill, the strictest in the nation. “With today’s historic bill signing, we are addressing the problem of plastic pollution head-on with solutions that will help mitigate climate change and strengthen our environment for future generations.”
No. 14: Hand’s Is Still Alive. On Feb. 19 it was reported that the Hand’s Store, a North Beach Haven landmark for 68 years, would be closing.
“With Hand’s department store in North Beach Haven closing in April, Long Beach Island loses not just another retailer, but a part of the fabric of the community,” wrote Ray Fisk in a SandPaper Speakeasy column. “It’s symbolic of the shifting ground on LBI in recent years.”
As it turned out, the death of Hand’s was akin to reports of Mark Twain’s death in 1897 when he was lecturing in London to pay off debts. The rumor spread that he was ill and then dead. When a reporter found him he supposedly said “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Well, on March 4 it was reported that Hand’s would remain open under new ownership.
“Best news I’ve heard in a long time,” said Beach Haven Mayor Nancy Taggart Davis. “Without that store, you’d have to drive a ways for a screw or a picture hanger, and that would take a lot longer time in the summer. I’m absolutely thrilled.”
Still, the face of Beach Haven and LBI in general is definitely changing, a subject that will be addressed later in this article.
No. 13: Coyotes! This is another story that continues to this day. Jay Mann wrote about coyotes, or coywolves, in his Feb. 10 The Fish Story column. Then, on March 4, Maria Scandale reported that a woman in Barnegat Light had reported a sighting of two coyotes or two coyote-wolf mixes following her as she was walking her small dog.
As I said, the problem continues. On Dec. 16 Scandale reported that coyotes or coywolves or whatever you want to call them had spread far beyond Barnegat Light.
“Everybody is very concerned,” said Barnegat Light Taxpayers Association President Barbara Truncellito, “because there are sightings of coyotes at 8 o’clock in the morning, 10 o’clock in the morning, Ship Bottom, North Beach, Beach Haven and we’re just trying to get in front of what we think could become a major problem on this island.”
No. 12: LGBTQ. This is a holdover from 2019 when this issue ranked as the fifth biggest story of the year. It slots in the 12th spot this year because the issue appears to be resolved, at least as far as the Pinelands Regional School District in concerned.
In November 2019 the Pinelands Board of Education voted to be one of only a dozen districts in New Jersey to be a pilot district implementing New Jersey’s requirement to include the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning community to society in its curriculum. By Jan. 2020 Christian fundamentalist opponents had mounted a concentrated response.
To say it was a heated debate with LGBTQ supporters would be a vast understatement. In the end the BOE did not back down. The issue became moot as the year grounded on. First of all, New Jersey required the curriculum in all districts come the opening of the 2020-2021 school year. Secondly, school districts had bigger problems to deal with come the COVID pandemic.
No. 11: Jeff Van Drew. Southern Ocean County has had influential or controversial congressmen in the past. For example, take former Rep. Tom MacArthur, who represented New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District before losing a re-election campaign in 2018 to Democrat Andy Kim. In 2017 MacArthur was given credit for pushing the then Republican-controlled House of Representatives to pass the American Health Care Act of 2017, which would have permitted states to waive out of Obamacare’s ban on pre-existing conditions. That bill was defeated in the Senate, but the “MacArthur Amendment” showed that he was a player in Washington. Then again, that stand was most likely responsible for his loss to Kim.
But MacArthur wasn’t nearly as controversial or as well known nationally as New Jersey’s current 2nd Congressional District Rep. Jeff Van Drew.
Van Drew, who represents all of Southern Ocean County save for Barnegat Township and half of Stafford Township, made this list as No. 2 in 2019. After all, the life-long Democrat switched parties toward the end of last year, vowing “undying support” to President Donald Trump. He was rewarded with a Trump rally in January in the Wildwoods Convention Center. And then he won a convincing victory – 51.9 percent to 46.2 percent – over Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy (yes, those Kennedys) this past past November.
Van Drew certainly has kept his promise of undying support for Trump. He voted for $2,000 pandemic relief checks for most American adults, just as the president had urged. But he also voted not to override Trump’s veto of the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act. The veto was finally overridden by large majorities in both the House and Senate, giving Trump his first defeat in his presidency in regards to vetoes. But Van Drew remained loyal to the president. He went on last week to vote against the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the November election, even after the insurrection at the Capitol building.
Trump will be leaving the White House on Jan. 20. What will Van Drew do then?
No. 10: Chris Vernon. Oh boy, another repeat from 2019. Indeed, Vernon was the No. 1 story of the year in 2019. He’s moving down the list somewhat because, well, an important part of news is “new.” Still, the developer continues to make headlines because he certainly has his hands in a number of projects. Talk about changing the face of LBI and Southern Ocean County.
Vernon, who already owns the Bonnet Island Estate, the Mallard Island Yacht Club, the Boatyard, the Mainland Holiday Inn complex in Stafford Township and Hotel LBI in Ship Bottom, had moved slowly but surely ahead with his plans for his latest project, his Beach Haven Hotel and Marina at the former site of Morrison’s restaurant. But his past may be starting to catch up with him.
On Dec. 23 SandPaper reporter Gina G. Scala reported that the state Department of Environmental Protection had fined Vernon $1.49 million for continued noncompliance of the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act at Hotel LBI. The DEP was actually being lenient with Vernon. According to Scala’s reporting, it could have fined the developer $10,490,000.
No 9: The Coming Storm. No, this isn’t about the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season. Rather it is about how how cavalier Southern Ocean County residents – just as residents throughout the country – were when facing the threat of COVID-19 until the middle of March.
The first recorded case of COVID in the U.S. was reported in Washington state on Jan. 20. On Jan. 22 President Trump told the public “we have it totally under control … It’s going to be just fine.”
Well, of course, that turned out to be wrong.
The first mention of COVID in The SandPaper showed up on Feb. 5 when this writer reported there had still been no confirmed cases of the disease in New Jersey. But I also noted that confirmed cases had been found in 21 countries as well as the U.S. Did we really think we were safe?
Interestingly, The SandPaper reported in that same issue that the Southern Ocean Medical Center had required visitors to be 12 years of age or older because of high influenza activity. Its parent company, Hackensack Meridian Health, also issued a statement saying, “Additionally, anyone with a fever or cough is asked to refrain from visiting the medical centers.” You have to wonder if COVID, which has many similar symptoms with the flu, was already in Ocean County.
As late as Feb. 26 a SandPaper “Artoon” was titled “CORONAVIRUS, The Current Situation” which brought attention to COVID but also seemed to somewhat mock it. It featured words such as “stopped drinking Corona beer,” “switched to Corona Light” and “hand washing marathons.”
However, on March 4 I wrote that there still hadn’t been any confirmed cases of COVID in the Garden State, but there had been two in New York and added that “the wolf is knocking on the door.” Many thousands of people commute from New Jersey into NYC, and considering the virus had already reached 68 countries at that time the Hudson River wouldn’t be enough of a fire break to hold COVID back.
By the next week The SandPaper contained four articles about the coronavirus.
One stated that Gov. Phil Murphy had declared a state of emergency and a public health emergency after 11 N.J. residents had tested “presumptive positive” for COVID-19 (testing was in its beginning stages and had to be confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) while an additional 24 were under investigation for COVID. None were in Ocean County, but just as the Hudson had proven no shield from the virus spreading from New York to New Jersey, the distance from upstate surely wouldn’t keep Southern Ocean County residents safe for long.
The other stories included further restrictions on visitors at SOMC, the Stafford Township School District canceling field trips, and Stockton University extending spring break and moving to a online educational model, all because of the coronavirus.
Still, the headline of the story regarding Murphy’s declarations read “State of Emergency in NJ Doesn’t Affect Our Daily Life – Yet.
No. 8: The Nightmare Begins. Things had sure changed by the March 18 issue of The SandPaper. Over 20 stories and columns were dedicated to the COVID pandemic.
Gov. Murphy had ordered a statewide shutdown on March 16. Restaurants were limited to takeout. Churches, libraries, municipal offices, parks, the Popcorn Park Zoo and most importantly as it turned out, schools and colleges were closed.
The first case of COVID in Ocean County and the 50th in the state had been reported on March 13. A 72-year-old Manchseter man checked into a Brick hospital on March 9 and was presumed positive for the virus.
To tell you the truth, many people weren’t that upset unless they couldn’t find toilet paper on store shelves. After all, the lockdown was only supposed to last two weeks. Apparently they forgot that The Minnow of “Gilligan’s Island” fame had set out for a three-hour trip.
No. 7: No Man Is an Island. By March 25, people in Southern Ocean County were starting to realize just how frightening the situation had become.
By that time COVID had reached the area, even LBI. On March 24 the Ocean County Health Department reported two cases in Long Beach Township and a case each in Ship Bottom, Surf City and Barnegat Light. The situation was worse on the mainland, with six cases in Barnegat, four in Stafford and two in Little Egg Harbor. The virus was clearly moving from north to south.
Officials declared LBI a local disaster area and asked seasonal homeowners to stay in their hometowns.
“Many people are taking this opportunity to spend time in the Long Beach Island area,” said Long Beach Township Commissioner Joseph Lattanzi, also a doctor at the SOMC. “We are strongly recommending that you remain in your primary service area and do not relocate to the shore area.
“Be mindful that if you do travel (here) you will not have access to your local care providers with a better appreciation of your medical history. Furthermore, the local health care and other emergency services are not equipped to handle a mass influx of demand, which will likely overwhelm the system.”
But let’s face it, if you lived in New York City or Philadelphia and could sit out lockdowns in your second home on LBI instead of being stuck in a big city, you were coming down. And don’t forget, those people are taxpayers.
No. 6: Suspicious Minds. Soon year-round Islanders were looking for out-of-state license plates.
“You love LBI,” a man wrote The SandPaper on March 25. “Your great-great grandfather started coming here every summer. You do not remember a time when you did not come to ‘the shore house on LBI.’ You look forward to LBI every spring. Humans are creatures of habit.
“‘We need to clean up our property.’ ‘That room ain’t gonna paint itself.’ ‘I gotta get my boat ready for the summer.’
“You pay taxes. It’s your home, your second home.
“The Island is my primary residency, with my 79- and 77-year-old parents. Does your need to drive hours to to come to LBI override the health of my parents who could possibly die – yes, die – from COVID-19 that got here from a piece of clothing or someone handling an object that came from miles away?
“I think you get the picture. Stay home. We do appreciate you. We depend on you. Just give us a break for a few weeks. Please!”
Several more letters in the same vein followed in the coming weeks. LBI was trying to cut itself off from the outside world. I’m surprised they didn’t demand the bridge be closed to all non-year ’rounders.
Hey, the same thing was happening on islands all over the world, from as small as LBI to medium-sized places such as Nantucket, to countries such as Iceland and New Zealand. The fear was understandable, but considering well over 200 countries and territories across the world had been hit by COVID-19, well, did people really think Barnegat Bay would save them?
No. 5: 180-Degree Turn. By May business owners and politicians wanted people to return to LBI and other South Jersey tourist spots. They were demanding Gov. Murphy lift restrictions.
“As the summer season approaches, our small businesses need to be allowed to reopen,” said Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari on May 22. “These businesses are owned by our neighbors. They are embedded in our communities and do everything they can to make our towns a better place to live.
“They have been following the rules and now is the time to allow them to reopen to the public to save their businesses especially as the tourism season gets underway in Ocean County.”
No. 4: Perfect Timing. As it turned out, Murphy’s lockdown had worked in leveling off COVID spread and LBI was able to open up for the tourist season. Sure, there were still plenty of restrictions such as occupation limits, and businesses still struggled, but at least they were given a fighting chance.
Interestingly, some businesses boomed. Bike shops had record sales. Realtors had a hard time keeping up with demand for homes on LBI because, remember, folks with a lot of money who lived in big cities couldn’t wait to escape.
Plus, if you recall, I earlier wrote that the coronavirus was moving from the north to the south. Sure enough, lockdowns in the Northeast had slowed the spread  there, but states such as Florida and Arizona got hit, hard, during the summer.
No. 4: Innovation. Businesses were still struggling. But they came up with a number of ways to help them survive. LBI started looking like Paris (well, not quite) with a number of outside dining options.
A great example of innovation was Beach Haven’s Surflight Theatre. Thanks to the cooperation of Beach Haven borough, it was allowed to pitch a big top tent in the borough’s Veterans Memorial Park so that its 2020 season wouldn’t have to be canceled. Sure, due to social distancing, only about 175 patrons at max could take in shows such as “Cabaret” and “Mamma Mia” during the summer. But from what I know, Surflight was the only professional theater in the country producing shows other than two others in western Massachusetts. And one of those was a one-man show while a production of “Godspell” had actors wearing masks and performing behind vinyl screens.
Surflight took much grief from the Actors Equity Association for performing the shows. Indeed, even this writer was attacked in emails by AEA members after reviewing “Cabaret,” Surflight’s first main-stage production of the summer, saying my review would attract old ladies and they would die and their blood would be on my hands. But not a single case of COVID-19, either in the cast or crew or audiences, was tracked to Surflight by the end of the year.
Surflight started in a tent on June 27, 1950, so you could call its 2020 season a “Retro Summer.” And the Lighthouse International Film Festival also went the retro route, screening films in drive-in locations instead of inside buildings. Again, from what I know, no cases of COVID could be related to the drive-in movies.
How cool is that!
No. 3: A Major Outbreak. The coronavirus was still lurking in the area during the summer. That was proven when LBI made national news when 35 Island lifeguards tested positive for COVID toward the end of July.
No. 2: Trump and Black Lives Matter. COVID was the top story from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 2020. But the 2020 presidential election and BLM definitely were the next biggest stories.
Ocean County was definitely Trump country. Boat and car parades supporting the president were a common sight in the county throughout the summer and fall.
Trump routed Joe Biden in the November election in Ocean County, earning 217,740 votes to Biden’s 119,456. That’s a 63.5 to 34.8 percentage difference!
BLM, though countered with huge marches and protests. Even Ocean County had some, with the most impressive march in Southern Ocean County being the one over the bridge. Hmm, the boat parades went under it while BLM went over it. What a contrast.
No 1: COVID-19. I told you that about 4,000 words ago. And I wouldn’t bet against the coronavirus being the biggest story of 2021 as well, unless a Trumpist revolution tears the country apart.
Scientists warned us. Back in the spring they said COVID-19 would roar come autumn and it did. If people traveled and gathered together during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays the situation would explode, they said.
It did.

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