The year especially highlighted the region's deep inequalities. While some local families absconded to less restrictive areas to avoid the inconveniences of shelter-in-place orders, others have been forced to live with painful uncertainties in addition to the grueling ones everyone else faced. They asked themselves questions like: When can I work again? How will my family pay rent? Will we be evicted? What will we eat?
In the first quarter of 2020, we saw the world turn upside down from the pandemic — and experienced California's first March primary. The biggest local election was among seven candidates seeking to replace state Sen. Jerry Hill when he termed out of the Legislature in 2020. The top two vote-getters in March were Democrat Josh Becker and Republican Alex Glew. Becker won handily in the November general election.
By mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic was raging and shelter-in-place orders put into effect as public health agencies scrambled to learn more about the virus, develop tests and contact tracing capacity and ensure adequate hospital space by "flattening the curve" of the virus' growing spread.
Both the city of Menlo Park and the county of San Mateo expanded emergency powers and used those powers in new ways. The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors enacted temporary eviction moratoriums to protect residential and commercial tenants during the initial shutdowns. The supervisors poured funds into programs intended to help those struggling: local small businesses, immigrant families who were not eligible for federal support, child care facilities, and the unhoused and marginally housed.
COVID-19 forced just about everyone to change how they do things.
We reported on how the coronavirus is reshaping how people mourn, how seniors cope with increasing isolation, and how the pandemic creates conditions that could worsen the abuse that survivors of domestic violence experience.
Local nonprofits stepped up in a big way to help a growing number of people experiencing significantly more need than even in the area's most booming times. Second Harvest Food Bank has more than doubled the number of low-income households it serves in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, even while battling a decline in volunteer help. Efforts by Vegan Outreach and Facebook also offered food aid to those in need. Kepler's Literary Foundation brought distance learning author visits and books to Ravenswood City School District students.
Menlo Park residents developed their own emergency response network, MPC Ready, to organize support for those needing help. And Belle Haven residents, led by Belle Haven Action, began to run their own popular neighborhood COVID-19 testing site.
The Menlo Park City Council had its work cut out this year, first in adapting City Hall operations to go remote during the start of the pandemic, then dealing with the economic fallout from massive revenue shortfalls. With travel restrictions and retail shutdowns, hotel taxes and sales taxes in particular fell far short of pre-pandemic predictions. Still, many city services shifted to continue to meet resident needs. The city's heavily subsidized child care programs were adapted to reduce child-to-adult ratios and virtual options were added; library services reopened for curbside pickup with a by-mail pilot program; and development proposals continued to be processed.
The City Council, over a series of intense meetings in April, May and early June, tackled what to cut with an estimated $12 million budget shortfall by reducing staffing by 15%, including laying off the equivalent of 44 full-time staffers, and cutting the police department's traffic unit, proactive gang and narcotics investigations and daytime parking enforcement. The city also let go of its community development director, merging that role with library services director.
Hoping to help downtown businesses adapt to pandemic restrictions, the City Council worked to create a balance between what restaurants needed — space for outdoor dining — and what retailers said they needed, which was parking and minimal street shutdowns. Many hours were spent on the council's virtual meeting platform, GoToMeeting, finessing what parts of Santa Cruz Avenue could or should be shut down and when. The current setup is set to last through February.
The city also made progress toward some environmental aspirations, becoming the first city to declare a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Menlo Park's first recycled water system was launched, focused on transforming former wastewater into irrigation water at the Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club.
On the development front, the city has been working with Facebook and architecture firm Hart Howerton to make good on Facebook's offer to rebuild the Onetta Harris Community Center complex in Belle Haven. As of September, the City Council was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposal on Jan. 12.
Other projects moving ahead include the large luxury development underway at El Camino Real and Oak Grove Avenue, formerly known as Station 1300, which was passed off to a new developer and rebranded as Springline; a new mixed-use development in Allied Arts; the Guild Theatre rebuild; and environmental review work for several large developments planned on the city's Bay side.
It wasn't a great year for two faith leaders in Menlo Park. In April, the head of Trinity Church was put on administrative leave after admitting he misused church funds. And at the end of July, the head of Menlo Church stepped down following a revelation that the pastor knew of his son's sexual attraction to children, but continued to let him work with youth.
The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people nationally triggered widespread protests. Locally, community protests were held up and down the Peninsula, led in many cases by young people and people of color.
The city of Menlo Park began to hold discussions about police reform when police Chief Dave Bertini abruptly resigned during a June meeting. Dave Spiller has taken on the role of interim police chief, and the city is working to recruit a permanent replacement.
The events also opened the door for more frank local conversations about race, including a discussion about neighborhood racism in July and a county forum in October in which the county sheriff, district attorney and advocates discussed race and law enforcement reform.
The year brought difficult times for the community's small business owners. They made efforts to transition to online sales and delivery services, trying to follow constantly shifting regulations for safely operating, but some didn't make it.
Among the businesses that shuttered in 2020 were J Floral Art and The Pet Place, while others shut down temporarily, like the Vallombrosa Center. Community fundraisers were organized to help institutions like Cafe Borrone and The Refuge.
In August, as if a global pandemic wasn't bad enough, disaster struck again in the form of a lightning storm that ignited blazes across California. A number of lightning strikes grew into the CZU August Lightning Complex fires, which became the largest on record in San Mateo County. The blazes burned more than 86,500 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, 22,755 of which were in San Mateo County, and destroyed nearly 1,500 buildings.
The fires forced evacuations for more than 4,500 San Mateo County residents and drew more than 1,500 firefighting personnel at its peak before reaching 100% containment in September and becoming 100% controlled only days ago, according to a Dec. 28 press release. Paid firefighters, volunteer fire brigades, plus some local park rangers all banded together to protect homes and forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The San Mateo County Large Animal Evacuation Group ran its own rescue operations to bring large animals from the Coastside and Santa Cruz Mountains to safety away from the fires. And the owners of Alice's Restaurant stepped up to feed firefighters and those who stayed behind the fire's evacuation lines.
While some areas were protected from the flames, the fires affected beloved forests in parks such as Big Basin State Park, Portola Redwoods State Park, and Pescadero Creek County Park.
Dangerous fire conditions persisted through October and into November, causing households in more remote areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains to face PG&E-mandated power shutoffs.
With the fire threat finally under control, attention turned toward the 2020 election season. In Menlo Park, there was just one contested race as the city completed its switch to district elections from at-large ones. The District 3 seat, which covers a central chunk of the city, had three contenders: Max Fennell, Chelsea Nguyen and Jen Wolosin.
Wolosin won the race and was sworn in Dec. 15. The race for the District 5 seat was uncontested, and incumbent Ray Mueller was reelected, this time as a district representative. Of regional importance, Measure RR also passed, granting Caltrain a more reliable source of funding even as the rail service faces major revenue losses caused by a steep decline in riders due to the pandemic.
As 2021 begins, all signs indicate the pandemic is likely to get worse before it gets better. Federally approved vaccines provide hope that this nightmare won't last forever, but the current surge in cases is hitting California especially hard right now — exacerbated by holiday travel — and continues to worsen. Perhaps residents will rally once again to flatten the curve and show their resilience through the upcoming days, weeks and months of 2021.
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