Marin’s top news stories of 2020: pandemic, protests, wildfires – Marin Independent Journal

The worst public health crisis in a century, a racial reckoning and massive wildfires that turned the sky an apocalyptic orange.

Any one of these events would have defined an extraordinary year for Marin. But 2020 was a year unlike any other — one that will be remembered for generations to come.

A look back on Marin’s top news stories of 2020 as selected by the Independent Journal:

The pandemic

The first cases of the novel coronavirus arrived in Marin in late February, when more than 50 people returned home to the county after a trip to Mexico aboard the virus-stricken Grand Princess cruise ship. By March, the county recorded its first COVID-19 deaths. Schools closed their campuses as infections climbed.

On March 16, Marin joined six other Bay Area counties in announcing the nation’s first “shelter-in-place” order. The criminally enforceable restrictions confined people largely to their homes and forced all but the most essential businesses to close, sending the economy into upheaval and triggering a financial crisis for many as small businesses endeavored to stay afloat and workers struggled to make rent and put food on the table.

Almost anything that would normally involve people getting together — classes, birthday parties, meetings and cocktail hours — moved online. Masks were made mandatory in public.

The lockdown was gradually eased, which fueled spikes in cases, before the rules were imposed again. A COVID-19 outbreak tore through San Quentin State Prison during a surge over the summer, infecting more than two thirds of the inmates and killing 28 of them.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Marin has logged more than 7,000 cases and 108 deaths from COVID-19 on top of those recorded at the prison. Nationwide, the virus has killed more than 315,000 Americans, more than World War II.

Edwin Martinez of Fairfax leads a chant during a Black Lives Matter march at Vintage Oaks shopping center in Novato on Monday, June 22, 2020. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

Social justice

Demonstrators lay in the streets of Fairfax, marched through Marinwood and painted murals in Mill Valley. Across Marin and the nation, protests erupted over the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes on Memorial Day.

Black Lives Matter activists called for an end to police brutality, and urged Marin County’s cities and towns to take action. Several local governments responded by forming committees to discuss racial equity and police policies.

While many of the demonstrations were peaceful, some were turbulent. In San Rafael, protesters toppled a statue of Junipero Serra outside the Mission San Rafael Arcángel, saying the 18th-century Catholic priest contributed to the destruction of Native American cultures. In Terra Linda, a man brandished a weapon at a racial mural.

Local officials in some cases came under fire amid the racial reckoning. Activists urged Mill Valley Mayor Sashi McEntee to resign after she said the Black Lives Matter movement was “not of local importance” during a City Council meeting. A demonstration was organized in Tiburon after the town’s police chief, Michael Cronin, issued a warning that a protest in Marin City could make Sausalito and Tiburon targets for unrest. More protests followed after police questioned a Black merchant about why he was in his Tiburon clothing shop at 1 a.m.

A campaign is underway to rename Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Sir Francis Drake High School because of the 16th-century explorer’s connection to slave trading.

Kayla Wills of the Redding Hot Shots lights a back burn to deprive the Woodward Fire of fuel along the south side of Limantour Road near Olema on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)


California’s firefighting crews were stretched to their limits during the 2020 fire season after an August lightning storm ignited dozens of wildfires throughout the state. In West Marin, the Woodward fire burned through steep, rugged terrain in the Point Reyes National Seashore and triggered evacuations as it spread toward neighborhoods.

Smoke from the August wildfires, many of which continued to burn into September, created some of the world’s worst air quality in Marin and throughout the state. That came as restaurants were limited to outdoor dining because of the pandemic, and health officials had advised people who were getting together with friends and family to do so outside, where the risk of coronavirus transmission is lower.

The sky turned an ominous orange for a day in early September as smoke from wildfires burning along the West Coast combined with a marine layer. Some described the day as “apocalyptic.”

On dry, windy days, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. shut off power in parts of Marin, even as pandemic restrictions forced many to work from home. The preemptive power shutdowns were aimed at preventing the utility’s electric equipment from sparking more wildfires. Rolling blackouts also came during heat waves as California’s power grid operator scrambled to keep the strained system functioning.

Jennifer Blackman of Bolinas drops her ballot into an official ballot dropbox at the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)


Before the pandemic upended the economy, Marin voters in March struck down a ballot measure that would have extended the sales tax that funds the SMART train, delivering a massive blow to the transit agency after an expensive campaign fight. At the same time, voters approved a 10-year property tax measure that will raise an estimated $19.3 million annually to fund a wildfire prevention agency.

In the November presidential election, Joe Biden won 82% of the vote in Marin. Kate Colin was elected San Rafael’s first woman mayor and Maika Llorens Gulati, who ran unopposed for a seat on the City Council, became the city’s first Latino council member. The six-person race for three seats on the Sausalito City Council came down to one vote, triggering a recount that reaffirmed a victory for newcomer Ian Sobieski, who edged out incumbent Joan Cox.

Homeless camps are seen in a parking lot under a stretch of highway 101 overpass near Fourth Street in San Rafael on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Homeless camps have popped up in parking lots and along the highway during the pandemic. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)


Marin County rented hundreds of hotel rooms to house the homeless this year in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus among those who would normally sleep in shelters. The temporary hotel program, funded by the state, grew into a permanent one as California officials offered funding for cities and counties to buy buildings and convert them into homeless housing.

In November, county officials approved plans to buy an office building in San Rafael and a hotel in Corte Madera, which are set to provide a combined 62 apartments for the homeless under the state program. But a proposal to also buy a 70-room hotel in Novato — for which the state would have picked up two-thirds of the cost — became a topic of controversy, with Novato neighbors saying the deal was rushed. The plan was eventually squashed after supervisors said they couldn’t come to an agreement with the property owner.

In Marin City, a plan to build a 74-apartment complex on a 1.1-acre lot was approved this month without review by the county’s planning commission or lengthy environmental analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act. The approval process was streamlined under a new state law aimed at spurring more development in California.


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