The December cover of Time magazine had 2020 in large type with a big red X and the caption “The Worst Year Ever.”
Few would argue.
A global pandemic, social unrest not seen for decades, Mother Nature’s fury unleashed, a country divided like never before, an election and political environment that did and does little to bridge the divide.
If there is a bright spot, as we exit 2020 and look forward to 2021 like no other New Year in recent memory, in the month of December, people by the thousands are being vaccinated against COVID-19 with millions more ready and willing when their number comes up.
The dominate story of 2020 in Colonie, Albany County, the state, the nation and around the globe is COVID-19, obviously. It did, and still does, impact every aspect of life as we know it — from wearing masks in public to how we shop, eat, worship, interact and educate. It is not just the biggest story of 2020, it is the biggest story in a century.
The first recorded case in Albany County came on March 12. Since then 10,764 county residents have tested positive for the virus as of Monday, Dec. 28. There 118 residents hospitalized on Monday and 208 have died since March. With in-person celebrations of Christmas and New Years coming on the heels of Thanksgiving, officials fear January could be the worst month of the pandemic.
The vaccine, produced and approved in record time, is just starting to be injected into Americans across the country, and the number of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to climb at staggering ratest.
We have not yet realized the impact COVID-19 has, or will have, on our way of life — there are no adjectives worthy of describing the power of COVID-19.
A brief timeline:
• Jan. 17: The first recorded case in the U.S.
• March 1: The first recorded case in New York
• March 15: 613 cases in New York and two deaths
• March 17: 950 cases in New York, schools were closed, restaurants could offer only take out and movie theaters, gyms and casinos were shuttered.
• March 19: All employers were required to reduce the in-office workforce by 75 percent
• March 20: “New York on Pause” went into effect, and all “non-essential” businesses and churches were closed and any gatherings of any sort were forbidden.
• May 1: 308,000 recorded cases of COVID in New York state and more than 18,800 residents succumbed to the virus, most of whom were elderly and/or with underlying health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, obesity or heart disease.
Locally, municipalities closed buildings and cancelled meetings. Pleas for federal aid echoed from every mayor and supervisor from New York City to Massena to Buffalo. In Colonie, Supervisor Paula Mahan and the Town Board were forced to furlough nearly 40 employees, most of them part time but with parks closed and sales tax projections blown out of the water, budgets were tenuous at best.
Following an executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, restaurants and all non-essential businesses were closed but big box stores like Walmart, Price Chopper and Home Depot remained open. The unprecedented run on toilet paper was the butt of countless social media jokes but the shelves were in fact empty as people began hording the fundamental necessities of daily existence.
In Albany, County Executive Dan McCoy and Dr. Elizabeth Whalen held near daily press conferences broadcast live on Facebook to update residents on the most recent numbers and any directives coming down from the state. Cuomo established national notoriety, was given an Emmy Award and wrote a book.
The governor’s handling of the virus, though, was not without critics, particularly his March directive to house positive residents in nursing homes among the most vulnerable population.
With May came warmer weather and the number of cases began to drop, but also in May George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police and it sparked protests and riots in cities across the country including Albany. (See Below)
Through the summer, things began to return to a semblance of normalcy as restaurants and other businesses were allowed to open with limited capacity and a mask mandate and social distancing were mandatory.
Schools re-opened in September, and students who wanted to go back to in-person learning were allowed but it wasn’t the same. Mandatory class size reductions forced elementary school children to attend school in makeshift classrooms across the district and rather than move from one classroom to another for different subjects, the specialized teachers moved to the classes. Older students in Colonie and Shaker high schools were on rotating schedules with a number of days in person with the rest remote.
As we entered fall, the numbers started slowly ticking back up and the second wave is still proving why it was more daunting than the first wave and the number of cases in November and December continue to break all records as hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise.
Of the 208 county residents who died of COVID-19, 52 were over the last 30 days and capacity at hospitals across the state are nearing the critical point and have postponed a number of elective surgeries to make sure there is room for COVID-19 patients. Many schools in the Capital District have gone back to online learning.
As the saying goes, the darkest hour is before the dawn, and on Dec. 14, health care workers at hospitals in the Capital District began receiving vaccinations with a resident of Shaker Place, the county run nursing home, receiving her vaccination on Dec. 21.
It will take months to vaccinate enough people to reach the 75 percent immunity, widely considered to be the magic threshold or beating the virus, and officials are still urging people to wear masks, stay at home whenever possible and talks of shutting down again is getting louder as the numbers continue to rise.
As COVID went into recession, the chants of Black Lives Matter took over the streets.
Albany was not immune to the uglier side of the response to George Floyd’s murder on May 25. On May 30, a huge and powerful protest at Townsend Park was followed by a riot, with scores of stores along Central Avenue looted, damage to county buildings was estimated at $1 million, and police were pelted with garbage, bricks and Molotov Cocktails.
Colonie Center was broken into and the town established a 9 p.m. curfew as a tool to suppress any violence or looting along its business districts.
While there were smaller skirmishes between protesters and police in the Capital District in the days that followed, it was not like the prolonged riots that took place in larger cities across the country.
By and large, through the summer of 2020, the many marches and protests in every municipality across the Capital District were peaceful, including an amazing crowd estimated at 11,000 across the river in Troy.
One of the BLM mantras was and remains to defund the police and in response, Cuomo ordered every municipality in the state that has a police department to reorganize with the broad objective of “ensuring that all of its citizens are treated equally, fairly, and justly before the law.” More specifically, but no less broad, the executive order requires each department to review the use of force strategies and procedures, how much or little it engages the community and determine if there are any racial bias and disproportionate policing in minority communities.
Colonie’s Police Review Committee has been examining the department’s processes with a draft report due out in 2021. Colonie Chief Jonathan Teale said he is in favor of some ideas floated that fall short of defunding his department and that includes having more mental health and social workers actively involved in the criminal justice system.
Lining up against the Defund the Police, BLM protesters were those chanting Back the Blue. The two sides often clashed with the largest was in front of the Capital, when a handful of BLM protesters crashed a Back the Blue rally. They squared off again in front of Coccadott’s on Central Avenue in Colonie when the BLM crowd showed up to put the bakery on trial for making a cake in the form of a MAGA hat.
Dampening the BLM movement in the eyes of many was a spike in violence across the Capital District and in particular the City of Albany, which saw 130 people shot and 17 homicides in 2020.
Colonie, being centrally located between the three Capital District cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy, was not immune. In 2020, Colonie police confiscated 26 illegal firearms. To put that in perspective, the closest the town came to that number was in 2015 when it confiscated 11 and in 2017 and 2018 it was 10.
Law enforcement is quick to point to the so called bail reform as the reason for the spike in violent crime and fear it will get nothing but worse. The new laws regarding bail remove nearly all judicial discretion and many people who would otherwise be in jail pending adjudication of their criminal case were out on the streets. Not surprisingly, many failed to show up for their scheduled court appearances and many continued to commit crime.
The logic behind bail reform is to ensure those who cannot afford bail are treated the same as those who can. It is unclear if the state Legislature will modify bail reform in 2021.
• Ransomware attacks: In January, the town was hit by a ransomware attack and the Russian hackers demanded $400,000 to return control of the high-jacked computer system.
The town had in place a sophisticated backup system so it did not have to pay the ransom but the Management Information Services Department did have to restore data to each terminal. The process took some two weeks and smooth operation of the town’s system took close to a month to restore.
Similar attacks were inflicted on the City of Albany and the Albany International Airport.
• Panhandling: The Town Board flirted with an idea to limit where panhandlers could beg for money and the manner in which they did it.
The issue was brought up in response to complaints about aggressive panhandlers at busy intersections and in front of busy places of commerce. The legislation would have prevented panhandling from dangerous locations, like intersections, and prevented panhandlers from coming within six feet of anyone with the purpose of asking for money.
After a significant amount of public protest against the measure, it was tabled indefinitely.
In October, a short-lived but vicious storm felled trees across the Capital District and left more than 160,000 people without power. Pockets of people were left in the dark for days as National Grid worked to restore power. Two people died.
Earlier this month, the first real snow storm of the season fell across the Capital District and dropped record amounts of snow, snarling traffic and clogging streets. The 22.9 inches that fell at the Albany International Airport was the most snow that fell at the Albany International Airport since 1887. The state declared 18 counties in a state of emergency and cities struggled to clear streets.
Despite the pandemic and social unrest and unprecedented violence and Mother Nature’s fury, the town did complete some business.
• In July, the Colonie Town Board changed the zoning at the former Hoffman’s Playland site on Route 9, clearing the way for construction of a mixed use development that includes retail, restaurants, independent senior housing and assisted living senior housing. The project was scaled down since first proposed in 2018 and the Town Board placed a number of parameters on the project before changing the zoning to a Planned Development District which will allow more density than the current zoning permits.
• Earlier this month, the Planning Board gave final site plan approval for BOCES to construct two buildings on Watervliet-Shaker Road, a 167,000-square-foot Career and Technical Education Center and a 43,000-squre-foot new home for the Maywood Special Education School. The $63 million project will be built on some 38 acres owned by Rosetti Acquisitions, and will be built on the plot of land near Afrims Sports Complex furthest away from Watervliet Shaker Road.
• In September, the Town Board granted a zoning change to Crisafulli Associates to construct a senior housing complex near the Joseph Zaloga American Legion Post on Everett Road. Unlike some other housing earmarked for seniors that are targeting upper income seniors, this building will target those with a moderate income.
• In October, the Village of Colonie gave permission to Goldsten Realty Holding to demolish the former Community Center on Central Avenue to make way for a 107,000-square-foot storage facility. The company best known for car dealerships had been using the facility to park excess inventory. Demolition began earlier this month.
• In March, shortly before the pandemic took hold, the Town Board approved spending $6.9 million on a new Pure Waters Collection Section’s home base at the Department of Public Works facility on Wade Road. The crew that runs half the town’s sewer operation right now operate out of a bay of a garage and are often doing paperwork next to someone operating a saw or a pump. It would provide some office space and consolidate equipment from five different locations under one roof.
• The Village of Colonie has a new mayor for the first time since 1995. Mayor Frank Leak stepped down in October, 2019, due to health reasons and his deputy Ed Sim took the helm. Village Trustee Thomas Tobin ran unopposed for the spot and was supposed to be elected in March. That was postponed because of COVID and Tobin was elected in September by an unprecedented number of voters.
• District Attorney David Soares fought back a Democratic Party primary challenge by his former assistant Matthew Toporowski and since there was not a Republican candidate, Soares was easily elected to the seat he has held since 2004.
• All state and federal representatives were elected to another term including: U.S. Rep Paul Tonko, Sen. Neil Breslin, Assemblyman John McDonald and Assemblyman Phil Steck.
• Albany County has a new Republican chairman after Christine Benedict, a former county legislator from Colonie, stepped down. Berne Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger is now head of the fledging party.
• Albany County also has a new Democratic Party chairman, Jacob Crawford, of Guilderland. He replaces Jack Flynn, who led the county’s dominant party for four years.
• Early voting was allowed in this state for the first time and hundreds of people stood in line for hours waiting to cast their vote the first day the polls opened on Oct. 24, the first day the polls opened for the Nov. 3 election.
To say this is an unusual school year is an understatement as COVID’s tentacles reached into the classrooms too.
School was canceled in May, a month before graduation, and students and teachers were told they had to go shift from in person instruction to remote. The complications that arose and the hurdles educators and students overcame may never be fully appreciated.
Colonie held its graduation outside on the track in shifts, with 25 graduates at a time getting brief words of encouragement from education officials and a chance to walk across a makeshift stage in front of a small group of family and friends.
Shaker opted for a drive-thru ceremony with graduates and their families navigating a through the parking lot full of well-wishers, balloons and floats. They too had a chance to walk across a stage and receive their diploma.
School started up again in September but each district formulated its own plans to keep children and staff safe including small class sizes, spreading out elementary school children and allowing older children to split their education between in-person and online learning.
• At the beginning of the pandemic, a number of teachers at a number of elementary schools took to the streets and paraded around the district to see their students and students responded by standing along the route holding signs telling teachers how much they missed them.
• In January, South Colonie School District named David Perry its superintendent replacing the retiring John Buhner, who was superintendent since 2008.
• In his first budget and facing a $3.2 million shortfall, the South Colonie School District cut some 40 positions including 14 teachers.
• Mayor Frank Leak: In November, longtime Village of Colonie Mayor Frank Leak died at his home surrounded by his family. He was a village trustee since 1979 and served as mayor since 1995.
During his tenure, a new Fire Department was constructed, the Family Recreation center opened, the Senior Center became one of the most vibrant and thriving facilities in the county and extensive work was done at Cook Park, including the construction of an amphitheater that bears his name. He was 93.
• Fire Chief Ron Baker: In September, former director of the town’s EMS program and Village of Colonie firefighter Ron Baker died. The former Shaker high social studies teacher and football and wrestling coach was 79.
• Nicholas Huban: The owner of On the Farm on Route 2 and the former owner of Sneaky Pete’s on the Latham Circle died in November after getting hit by a car while blowing leaves near his property along Troy Schenectady Road.
He was 69.