2020 Hindsight: Georgia’s top 20 news stories of 2020

If anything can be said with certainty about 2020, we can say we lived through history. While no tears will be shed for the passing of this tumultuous year, it will leave its mark on our lives for many years to come. Here is a look back at the top 20 news stories of 2020 in Georgia.

Going Viral

The undisputed top story of 2020 on all levels, globally, nationally, and locally is the coronavirus pandemic. Whether you believed it was real, thought it was a hoax, ignored it, denied it, embraced it or caught it, the coronavirus pandemic affected your life.

In Georgia, the pandemic started with news that a father and child in Fulton County had contracted the virus after the father’s trip to Italy, an early COVID-19 hotspot. That was early March and the threat to the public was considered low. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp formed an 18-member task force to coordinate the state’s response to the outbreak.

By March 9, an employee of the Fulton County School District tested positive for coronavirus, causing schools to close initially for cleaning and disinfecting. By March 26, Kemp ordered all schools in the state closed through April 24. They did not reopen for the remainder of the school year.

Albany became a major hotspot for the virus with Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital being overwhelmed early on after the virus spread through two highly attended funerals in the Albany area.

By May 8, COVID-19 had spread to every county in Georgia. Georgians began throwing caution to the wind at Memorial Day and continuing through the summer, Georgia faced what at the time was the most critical spike of the virus in Georgia.

At its height in July, the state was adding 3,700 new coronavirus cases per day and the numbers remained elevated through mid August. However, as the Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays came, an even greater surge hit Georgia.

The grim reality of coronavirus hit on Christmas Eve — the worst day in Georgia for the pandemic to date. On that day, the state reported 7,951 new cases in a single day and the average number of new cases per day was over 5,000. As the year ends, hospital ICU beds are at capacity and the Georgia World Congress Center is being pressed into service for a third time to relieve Georgia’s strained hospital systems.

Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Warm Springs, Ga., on Oct. 27, 2020. (Biden campaign video)

Georgia Turns Blue

Unlike most election years, Georgia became a major player in the national political scene for the presidential election and has become the center of the political universe during the Senate Runoff elections.

After a close gubernatorial race in 2018 between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, democrats in the Peach State and throughout the nation saw a potential blue shift in the cards for Georgia.

As traditionally red counties like Cobb, Gwinnett and North Fulton went for democrats in several elections, the possibility of a blue Georgia in a presidential election began to cement itself.

In the presidential election — for the first time since 1992 — the state went for a democrat, electing Joe Biden by a thin margin and forcing both of Georgia’s senate seats into a runoff that will manifest in January.

The election results in Georgia were not without controversy and President Donald Trump and his supporters have repeatedly challenged the results, threatened elections officials, filed lawsuits, forced recounts and absentee ballot audits, and refused to accept the results of the election or the accuracy of Georgia’s voting system. None of those efforts have changed the outcome of the election in Georgia.

In the weeks since the November election, Georgia has become a major battleground, hosting everyone from Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Marco Rubio to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. All have visited the Peach State to campaign. Historically, Georgia rarely sees presidential candidates or national figures this frequently in an election year. Whether you accept the results of the election or not, it is clear that the voices of Georgians are being heard in a political system that has largely ignored Georgia for decades.

coronavirus, quarantine, pandemic
Photo by enriquelopezgarre on Pixabay

There’s No Place Like Home

In an attempt to flatten the curve, Georgians sheltered in place for the month of April. Schools closed, restaurants either closed or switched to delivery and pickup models, businesses either shut their doors for extended periods of time or figured out how to work from home.

Georgians did home repair projects, baked banana bread, got acquainted with Zoom, and discovered new hobbies. The curve looked like it was flattening, but the worst was yet to come.

Wide Open

Georgia was the first state to reopen during national coronavirus lockdowns, officially reopening April 24. Kemp’s decision to reopen drew ire from critics as well as caused a rift between the governor and Trump — a rift that would continue to deepen as the year progressed.

Kemp’s order reopening the state allowed businesses like bowling alleys and hair salons to reopen. The reopening was also done before the state met the White House’s guidelines for when states should reopen.

Kemp initially said he had spoken with Trump prior to reopening and Trump approved of the measure. Bowing to public pressure, Trump renounced Kemp publicly, telling reporters he was not happy about Kemp’s decision.

A new mural of Ahmaud Arbery by Marvin Weeks greeted people arriving by caravan from Atlanta Saturday to protest the lack of arrests in months following the February slaying of the unarmed black jogger. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder

Slaying of Ahmaud Arbery

Coastal Georgia resident Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down in February, but his death went largely unnoticed until video footage of his shooting came to light in May.

On Feb. 23, Arbery was in the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, when both Gregory and Travis McMichael confronted Arbery with two firearms. During the encounter, GBI officials say Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery. William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. was later arrested on charges of Felony Murder and Criminal Attempt to Commit False Imprisonment.

When the video emerged, the local handling of the case was called into question, leading to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepping in and making arrests in the case.

Arbery’s slaying spurred statewide reforms and discussions about criminal justice issues. The state legislature passed a hate crimes bill, citizens arrest laws are being debated, and the legislature passed a measure to allow voters to determine the fate of the Glynn County Police Department. That ballot measure was struck down by a judge.

Micah Casella / Shutterstock.com Police cars in flames during the protests in Atlanta over the slaying of George Floyd.

Atlanta Protests Turn Violent

In late May, what started as peaceful protests in downtown Atlanta erupted into violence. The protests were part of a series of nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd. Crowds of protestors vandalized the CNN building, burned cars on Marietta Street and threw items, including knives at police officers.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addressed the protesters in an emotionally-charged press conference where she urged them multiple times to “go home.”

On night two of the protests, a curfew was put in place, curtailing much of the violent activity.

Protests would start up again in Atlanta later after Atlanta police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot in June. Protests in July prompted Brian Kemp to send the National Guard into the city after an 8-year-old girl was shot during a violent weekend.

Mask Wars

Perhaps no issue has illustrated the disconnect between America’s two leading political parties like mask-wearing during the coronavirus pandemic. The battle between those claiming to act for the greater good and those claiming to stand up for personal liberty was also felt in Georgia — and once again, Georgia’s governor took center stage in the mask battle.

Kemp has made clear throughout the entire pandemic that he supports masks — he just doesn’t want to mandate them. This put him at odds with several mayors and county commissioners who wanted to see the state mandate mask wearing.

Kemp’s belief that Georgian’s would mask up voluntarily was so prevalent that a series of executive orders barred local governments from imposing mask mandates.

Eventually, Kemp relented and allowed mask mandates at the local level under specific conditions.

Administration arches architecture building
Photo by Michael Judkins on Pexels

Two Senate Seats, Two Runoffs

When Sen. Johnny Isakson retired from the senate late last year, it created a scenario where both of Georgia’s senate seats would be up for election at the same time. Senate terms are staggered, so this is a rare event that will shape the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

Kelly Loeffler — who has filled the seat since Isakson retired — was thrown into a “jungle primary” on Nov. 3 for the remainder of the term. Loeffler appeared on a ballot with multiple candidates, including fellow republicans.

At the end of the day, Loeffler, a Republican, and Democrat Raphael Warnock moved on to the Jan. 5 runoff.

Republican Sen. David Perdue faced a challenge from Democrat John Ossoff in November, but since political winds were changing in The Peach State and the margin between Perdue and Ossoff was razor-thin, Libertarian Shane Hazel was able to prevent either candidate from getting the required 50%-plus-one vote, sending Perdue and Ossoff into a rematch Jan. 5.

If Georgia were to remain blue during the Jan. 5 election, it would put the balance of power in the Senate at 50 republicans and 50 democrats, with Vice-President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, which would effectively end republican rule in the Senate.

This race has propelled Georgia into the national spotlight where The Peach State has taken center stage in all discussions of U.S. politics.

Test Anxiety

Another coronavirus-related controversy surrounded standardized tests in Georgia and how much — if anything — they should count toward a student’s final grade during a pandemic.

Prior to the outbreak of coronavirus in Georgia, both School Superintendent Richard Woods and Gov. Kemp had said Georgia tests too much. Once the pandemic struck, the question of whether or not it was fair to test students who were learning virtually was raised.

The state requested a waiver from the federal government to avoid end-of-year testing for the 2020-21 school year. In September, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rejected the request.

Next, Woods proposed lowering the weight of the tests from 20% of a student’s final grade to just 0.01% of the final grade. The state school board balked, proposing a reduction to 10%

After a 30-day public comment period that proved Woods had the support of teachers and students, the board voted to water the tests down to Woods’ proposed 0.01% weight.

Crowding Back to School

While several of Georgia’s larger school districts began the school year using a virtual-only model, or returned with a mask mandate, two school districts got caught up in the national conversation after viral photos showed a failure to socially distance.

Photos from Paulding and Cherokee Counties were shared on social media and were picked up by CNN and TMZ. The photos show packed hallways and group shots of students who are not socially distanced and not wearing masks.

In an audio clip shared on Twitter, North Paulding High School Principal Gabe Carmona was heard telling students not to share images or videos on social media that cast the school in a negative light and warns of “consequences” for those sharing the information.

In response, State Superintendent Richard Woods called on school leaders to operate with transparency and not to penalize students for expressing their concerns about the handling of the virus.

Head Count

In any other year, the Federal Census would be near the top of the news. In 2020, the Census was lost in a pandemic-driven news cycle. Georgia lagged behind other states in census participation, largely due to distrust of the government.

For those who didn’t see the coverage of the Census, the national head count determines how states are represented in Congress and how much federal money they receive.

Fire On The Roads

Unfortunately, we can’t say an Interstate fire is unusual in metro Atlanta, but February’s fire on I-85 captivated residents throughout suburban Atlanta. A multiple-vehicle crash on I-85 North near Jimmy Carter resulted in a large explosion on Feb. 1.

When police arrived they located an overturned tanker truck and a passenger car fully engulfed in flames. Fire crews from both Gwinnett County and Dekalb County responded to the scene. All of Interstate 85 northbound was shut down at that time, with traffic being diverted onto Pleasantdale Road.

The unidentified flammable liquid from the tanker quickly drained into a nearby sewer drain. As a result of the drainage, fire spread underground in the sewer further south on I-85, even crossing underneath I-85 southbound, and came to a stop on Crescent Drive near Ole Mexican Foods.

There were two fatalities in the wreck, the driver of the truck and the driver of a Volkswagon Passat.

Kemp ends Obamacare in Georgia

The Republican-led push to end Obamacare may not have happened nationally, but in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp was able to effectively end the Affordable Care Act in Georgia.

Kemp pushed for and got the Trump administration to give Georgia a waiver from the health insurance exchange. The state will now create its own private health insurance exchange that Kemp said would “create a competitive private insurance marketplace that provides Georgia’s residents with better access, improved customer service, and coverage options.” 

State Trooper Cheating Scandal

A state trooper trainee cheating scandal led to the resignation of Georgia’s public safety chief in February. In January, an entire cadet class was fired for cheating on an online exam. The cadets confessed to cheating.

Fort Valley State student killed

Another story that captivated Georgians this year was the slaying of Fort Valley State student Anitra Lashay Gunn in February.

The investigation into Gunn’s disappearance was started on Friday, Feb. 14, by the Fort Valley Police Department. On Saturday, Feb. 15, at about 3 p.m., the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was asked to assist in processing a white, 2013, Chevrolet Cruze identified as belonging to Gunn. 

Ground searches were conducted in different locations in and around Peach and Crawford County. During the search, a Peach County Investigator searched a wooded area and located Gunn’s body.

On Feb. 21, the GBI charged Gunn’s boyfriend, 22-year-old Demarcus Little with one count of malice murder in Gunn’s death.

New Police Chief Quickly Becomes Old Police Chief

Johns Creek named a new police chief in March and by September, the city council accepted his resignation.

Police Chief Chris Byers’ time in Johns Creek was almost instantly marked with controversy. Byers was named chief March 27 and within three months came under fire for comments he made on Facebook accusing faith leaders of abandoning police officers during the Black Lives Matter protests.

In the social media message which was specifically addressed to pastors and faith leaders, Byers accused faith leaders of abandoning the police officers in their congregations in an effort to be ‘relevant.’

Georgia Told to Stop Charging Residents to Read The Law

Georgia has a copyrighted version of its state laws known as the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. Because it is copyrighted the state has been able to charge people to read it and distribute it.

In a split decision in April, the Supreme Court put an end to that practice. “Under what has been dubbed the government edicts doctrine, officials empowered to speak with the force of law cannot be the authors of—and therefore cannot copyright—the works they create in the course of their official duties,” Supreme Court Chief Justice said in the court’s ruling.

Abortion ban banned

In June, a federal judge blocked Georgia’s ban on abortions after a heartbeat is detected. The ruling came after the U.S. Supreme court struck down a similar law in Louisiana.

The controversial “Heartbeat Bill” was passed in 2019, but the law has never been able to go into effect because of court rulings and injunctions.

Sisters Found Dead Under Bridge

In May the bodies of two sisters were found under a bridge in Rome. The bodies were identified as 19-year-old Vanita Nicole Richardson and 30-year-old Clarice Truvenia Campbell.

By July, three arrests were made in the case.

Desmond Lavonta Brown, Devin Lashawn Watts and Christopher Leedarius Pullen were charged in connection with the deaths. Brown and Watts were both charged with Malice Murder and Pullen has been charged with Felony Murder.

According to detectives, the homicide stemmed from a missing wallet.

Plane Crash Kills 5

In June, a Piper 31T twin engine turbo prop aircraft crashed in a densely wooded area off Tanyard Road near Eatonton.

Five people died in the crash. The Putnam County Sheriff’s office identified the deceased as 67-year-old Larry Ray Pruitt of Morriston, Florida, his daughter, 43-year-old Jody Rae Lamont, her husband 41-year-old Shawn Charles Lamont and their two children 6-year-olds Jayce and Alice Lamont.

According to Putnam County Sheriff Howard R. Sills, the family was flying from Florida to Indiana to attend a funeral.

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