What a year, eh? The RiverTown newsroom looked back on 2020 to compile lists of the most important news and sports stories covered by the Star-Observer and Republican Eagle. Check back to Top 10 Stories of 2020 over the next few days to see what made the cut.

Naming the COVID-19 pandemic the top story of 2020 seems like an understatement.

From the first confirmed cases locally in March to dozens of newly reported cases daily at the end of the year, the coronavirus brought sweeping changes to health care, businesses, schools and more, with long-term effects likely to ripple through society for decades to come.

For countless families around the world, across the nation and here at home, 2020 was a year of mourning. The U.S. death toll from the pandemic surpassed 300,000 people in December, including 28 in St. Croix County, 29 in Pierce County and 40 in Goodhue County as of Dec. 28, according to local health departments.

Thousands of more residents in the tri-county area caught COVID-19 and recovered. For others the disease required hospitalization. Still more will be infected before vaccines are readily available in 2021.

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“The situation is serious, but we shouldn't lose hope,” Pierce County Health Officer AZ Snyder wrote in an email to the Republican Eagle on Dec. 3, two days after Wisconsin set a new single-day record of 107 COVID-19 deaths. “We can turn this around. It is not too late for each one of us to make a difference by keeping up physical distancing and masking.”

“Vaccines are the way to a better 2021,” she added. “It is important that we use reliable and complete sources of information when making decisions about vaccinations for our families.”

Snyder made frequent appearances at local government meetings throughout the year, with elected officials calling on her expertise as they made policy decisions.

County health departments became central to the pandemic response, from contact tracing cases to reporting daily COVID-19 numbers and promoting mitigation measures.

Local and state officials also became targets of criticism by residents frustrated with pandemic-related clampdowns on businesses and travel, or nervous about government overreach on personal liberties. Health department staff in Goodhue County faced unfounded accusations on social media that death totals were being overreported.

A St. Croix County ordinance to give the public health officer specific and limited power to enact a face mask requirement or limit the size of public gatherings was narrowly rejected by County Board in November. Public comments against the proposal included complaints that the ordinance was unconstitutional, illegal and immoral.

Similar arguments were levied against Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order and subsequent statewide mask mandate. The former was overturned by the state Supreme Court after a lawsuit by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

GOP lawmakers in Minnesota meanwhile threatened to block a state bonding bill unless Gov. Tim Walz discontinued his pandemic emergency authority. Protesters routinely gathered outside the governor’s mansion calling for an end to restrictions on bars, restaurants and public gatherings.

Economic impact

Though some local shops stayed afloat by pivoting to alternative business models, the pandemic and related restrictions hit Main Street economies hard.

The Evers administration announced tens of millions of dollars in statewide grants to assist struggling industries — including bars, restaurants, and movie theaters — funded by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or CARES Act. In early December the administration announced a round of grants for hotels and other lodging businesses with an average of $350 per eligible room.

“The economic recovery for many Wisconsin communities depends largely on the tourism and lodging industries,” Wisconsin Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan said in a news release. “By injecting these funds into local lodging and tourism partners, we hope to provide a lifeline and some stabilization to local economies, businesses and jobs.”

Main Street in River Falls, Wisconsin, is all but empty Friday night, April 17, 2020, amid social distancing and business shutdowns to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
Main Street in River Falls, Wisconsin, is all but empty Friday night, April 17, 2020, amid social distancing and business shutdowns to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

A sticking point to the Badger State’s pandemic response was long delays for some residents receiving unemployment insurance benefits. The Evers administration placed much of the blame on antiquated technology coupled with a historic number of claims. This fall more than 130 Department of Workforce Development employees were transferred to the Unemployment Insurance Division and the governor accepted the resignation of the department’s secretary.

Wisconsin paid more than $4.42 billion to 560,000 claimants since March 15, according to the Department of Workforce Development’s November unemployment data. In Minnesota, the cumulative number of unemployment insurance applicants surpassed 1.1 million since mid-March, including 8,694 in Goodhue County as of Dec. 16.

There were 10.7 million people unemployed in the U.S. in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate dropped to 6.7%, though it remained 3.2 percentage points higher than February, before the pandemic hit.

Health care impact

Health care workers were on the frontline of the pandemic response, tackling the initial surge in COVID-19 cases only to be overwhelmed again by a second wave in the fall. Hospital beds in mid-December were near capacity in Wisconsin’s northwest hospital region and in southeastern Minnesota, according to government reported data.

“The staff is feeling it,” said Dr. Robert Albright Jr. about pandemic-related fatigue at Mayo Clinic. The newly announced vice president of Mayo Clinic Health System in southeastern Minnesota told reporters Dec. 2 that planning for vaccine rollout was proceeding “full steam ahead,” but he reiterated the continued importance of social distancing, face coverings and hand washing.

Measures to control the spread of coronavirus not only help relieve work-related stress for hospital staff, but also help keep them from getting sick when off the clock. More than 200 Mayo Clinic Health System staff members in northwestern Wisconsin were out due to COVID-19 infection or exposure earlier this fall, mostly as a result of community — not workplace — exposure, according to a hospital administrator. Over 900 Mayo Clinic staff in Rochester contracted the disease over a two-week span in November.

The pandemic also changed the way health care workers delivered care to patients in 2020 — and in the years ahead — as virtual appointments became the new normal. Back in April, Allina Health announced more than half of doctor visits were being held virtually. A month earlier, virtual care accounted for less than 1% of visits.

“Our patients and providers have adopted virtual care very quickly and this will permanently change how we deliver care even after the COVID-19 pandemic passes,” David Slowinske, Allina Health senior vice president of operations, said at the time.

Patients with chronic conditions had procedures delayed as staff and medical resources were dedicated to pandemic response. Fewer elective procedures coupled with increased costs due to the pandemic meant a financial hit for the health care industry, the full extent of which is yet to be seen. Mayo Clinic announced spending cuts as well as furloughs for some hourly employees after a projected $3 billion loss in 2020.

The free community CARE Clinic in Red Wing serving low-income and uninsured patients — who are especially vulnerable to a public health crisis — added four days of telehealth offerings thanks to donated hours by several retired doctors. From March to October, the clinic had more than 4,000 patient encounters, including 966 for dental care and 174 for mental health.

“The pandemic has created many challenges for CARE Clinic, both with funding and service delivery,” Executive Director Julie Malyon said. “We pivoted rapidly, allowing for uninterrupted delivery of valuable medical, dental, mental health and insurance enrollment services for thousands of underserved community members.”

She added: “We thank our staff and volunteers who have placed themselves at higher risk during the pandemic so CARE Clinic patients are protected.”

Education impact

For students the pandemic meant adapting to learning from home alongside their parents, many of whom entered the rapidly growing telecommuting workforce. After in-person classes were canceled in the spring semester, school districts rushed to train teachers and implement distance learning programs.

For the year’s high school seniors, the clampdown meant canceled ceremonies and parties. In Red Wing, local businesses did what they could to soften the blow by donating gifts to the graduating class.

Planning and debate continued over the summer as school districts weighed student and staff safety with the goal of reopening schools in the fall — seen as an important step in allowing parents to return to work.

Districts locally decided on a mix of in-person or “hybrid” in-person/distance learning models for different grade levels. A surge in cases then prompted several schools to temporarily pivot to distance-only learning.

The Unviersity of Wisconsin-River Falls opened a COVID-19 testing site on the second floor of Hagestad Hall. Residence hall students were required to get tested every two weeks following a spike in cases in mid-September. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
The Unviersity of Wisconsin-River Falls opened a COVID-19 testing site on the second floor of Hagestad Hall. Residence hall students were required to get tested every two weeks following a spike in cases in mid-September. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

At the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, residence hall students were required to get tested following a two-week shelter-in-place policy in September, put in place in response to a spike in cases on campus. Students were moved out of Stratton Hall so the building could be used as a dedicated isolation space.

School boards continue to meet regularly to monitor disease activity and adapt pandemic plans.

“We’ve remained nimble and responsive to the changing landscape of COVID in our schools over the last two months,” Superintendent Jamie Benson said at a River Falls School Board meeting in November. He addressed the board by phone because he was quarantining due to a household member testing positive.

The number of positive tests was on the decline locally following an uptick after Thanksgiving, but health experts warned of the potential for another surge in COVID-19 cases caused by December holiday gatherings.

Rebecca Mariscal and Forum News Service contributed to this story