Everyone has a handful of years that stick out in their memories, years that contain special significance in their lives.
The year they were were born. The year they graduated high school or college. Maybe the year they got married, or perhaps the one when they had their first child.
They're different for each person, dependent on particular life events.
There are few years that transcend, that hold meaning not just for an individual but for the masses as a whole. Years that rest similarly in the collective mind.
This year will be one of those rare few.
Decades from now, when anyone who lived through 2020 looks back, the 12 months that are now, finally, coming to a close will most likely resonate deeply. It was a year unlike, really, any that came before it. And, hopefully, any that follow.
It was the year that schools and businesses shut down. The year that we wore masks and stockpiled cleaning supplies and learned what "social distancing" and "contact tracing" are. It's the year where we gave up so much, from gathering with loved ones to going to the movies to handshakes and hugs.
It was the year of COVID-19.
When the year began, the coronavirus that would come to define 2020 wasn't much of a concern for most in Berks County, or elsewhere in the U.S. Sure, there were distant rumblings of a sickness spreading through parts of China, but the threat felt far away.
The first impact COVID-19 had on Berks came at the end of January. Four Wilson High School students cut an eight-week trip to Shijiazhuang, China, short, returning home because of the worsening spread.
But at that time, there were only a handful of coronavirus cases in the U.S., with none in Pennsylvania. Local health experts said the threat to Berks was pretty low.
And even as March began, the risk still seamed minimal. The U.S. only had 85 reported cases and just six deaths.
The next few weeks, however, were filled with swift and severe changes. COVID-19 shifted from a creeping problem to a full-blow, rapidly spreading pandemic.
By the time the coronavirus finally arrived in Berks on March 18, the county had already declared a disaster emergency and the U.S. had declared a national emergency.
Gov. Tom Wolf closed schools statewide for two weeks five days before Berks' first case. Liquor stores were already shut down when COVID-19 arrived, local hospitals had started limiting visitors and the Diocese of Allentown had stopped holding public Masses.
Things only continued to get worse.
The weeks and months that followed saw the lives of those in Berks, as well as the rest of the state and nation, change drastically.
Case counts grew locally and nationally. People died, got sick, lost jobs, were forced to stay at home.
Schools and businesses saw continued shutdowns. Hospitals had their resources stretched. Food banks and other nonprofit organizations were pushed past their limits.
After a flattening of "the curve" over the summer months, where local and statewide COVID-19 numbers shrank, the pandemic rebounded in the fall, pushing daily case numbers to record highs.
As of Saturday, the state has had a total of 547,125 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 14,883 Pennsylvanians have died from the disease, according to data from the state Department of Health.
In Berks, the Department of Health had reported 20,625 confirmed cases and 540 deaths as of Saturday.
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched just about everything and everyone. It has made 2020 a year that no one is likely to forget, even though many probably wish they could.
Here's the impact it had in the Berks community.
Health care workers on the front lines
Hospitals and health care workers spent the majority of 2020 on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic treating patients.
Early on, COVID-19 testing protocols were established focusing mostly on travel and known exposure before expanding to those with known symptoms. Health systems designated testing sites, including a drive-thru testing site at Penn State Health St. Joseph that allowed people to remain in their vehicles while health care workers performed testing. For some, getting tested was a struggle while those who were able to get tested waited anxiously for results.
Hospitals and other facilities postponed or paused nonessential procedures and some appointments in an effort to slow the spread of the virus and conserve their personal protective equipment supply in preparation for the initial peak of the pandemic in the spring. Visitation restrictions and enhanced cleaning measures were also added during the year.
In an effort to continue to provide care to patients during a time when in-person visits were limited, health systems added more telehealth options that allowed patients to speak with a provider from the safety and comfort of their own homes. Reading Hospital also implemented a virtual ICU, allowing for more eyes on the sickest patients.
Technology has helped the public stay informed during the pandemic with health systems and the state Department of Health using COVID-19 dashboards to share data such as the number of COVID-19 patients in each hospital, bed availability and the number of tests performed.
The community was successful in flattening the curve in the summer as hospitals saw a decline in COVID-19 patients and daily new case numbers, but the fall resurgence has caused hospitalizations and daily new case numbers to surpass records set during the spring peak, straining Berks hospitals.
This month, hospitals received their first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer. Additional shipments of Pfizer's vaccine and a Moderna vaccine are expected.
The pandemic will continue until everyone who wants to receive the vaccine is able. And that will take time. Until then, health systems are relying on the community to do its part to continue to slow the spread of the virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
— Shea Singley
Need for food skyrockets
COVID-19 changed the way nonprofit organizations in Berks County did their work in 2020, and none had to adapt faster than Helping Harvest food bank.
The coronavirus pandemic has created a need for food in Berks and Schuylkill counties this year that’s unprecedented.
"It’s not even close," said Helping Harvest spokesman Doug Long when comparing pre-pandemic demand to what it’s become. "The numbers are through the roof."
So many people in both counties have lost jobs, suffered pay cuts or reduced hours due to changes brought on by the virus, Helping Harvest officials said. So the organization not only has a lot of new clients, but existing clients whose already shaky financial footing has worsened and who are in need of additional food.
Sometimes food purchases are neglected in favor of paying rent, electric bills and medicine, officials said.
That trend of lost jobs and income is also being seen by other nonprofits working to help those in the community struggling to get by.
Demand for services is up, and to make things more difficult, fundraising has gotten a lot harder.
Live events such as galas, 5K runs, auctions and in-person appeals have been made impossible or have had to be held virtually to meet new social distancing rules, and the amount raised by those events has often suffered, officials said.
The groups are being creative, though, and figuring out new ways to solicit donations to continue helping clients.
Through it all, organizations like the United Way of Berks County have been heartened by the generosity of the community, with many still donating even though they themselves are suffering financially, officials said.
— Mike Urban
Education adapts to online
The COVID pandemic impacted education in Berks County even before the first report of a case of the infectious disease in the county.
At the end of January, four Wilson High School students had to cut short an eight-week trip to Shijiazhuang, China, as the coronavirus wreaked havoc in parts of the Asian country.
As COVID-19 began creeping into Pennsylvania — the state's first two cases were reported March 6 — its impact on schools quickly grew. On March 12 Boyertown School District was included in an order by the governor to temporarily close all schools in Montgomery County.
A day later five Berks schools announced they were temporarily shutting down to tackle some thorough cleaning, and Alvernia University, Albright College and Reading Area Community College each announced they were moving classes online for a few weeks.
By the end of the day, the governor announced that all Pennsylvania schools would close for two weeks.
That two-week closure, slowly but surely, grew. In the end, schools across the state remained shuttered for the rest of the school year, forcing districts to shift to remote learning.
All the colleges in Berks, likewise, concluded their spring semester online.
When classes resumed in fall, school districts and colleges were given leeway to pick how they would hold classes. School districts were required to submit safety plans to the state detailing the steps they would take to keep students and staff safe.
Most chose a blend of in-person and virtual learning, a move aimed at minimizing the number of people in buildings at one time. A few school districts — including Reading, the county's largest — opted to go fully virtual, and a couple chose full in-person.
The results have been mixed.
School officials have said the procedures and protocols they've put in place have kept COVID-19 from spreading inside schools.
But as the pandemic has surged this fall, COVID-19 cases have led to dozens of temporary building closures.
Several districts decided to go virtual for a few days after the Thanksgiving break in hopes of cutting off any cases picked up at family gatherings, and some will do the same after winter break.
The state has recommended colleges do the same, beginning the spring semester virtually.
— David Mekeel
Campaigns blazed new trails
Some candidates hosted conversations on Facebook. Others checked in on constituents to see how they could connect them to services they might need, creating lists of community resources and collecting supplies for nonprofit organizations.
No one knocked on doors, held fundraising events or passed out buttons.
That is what the campaign trail in Berks County looked like in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. There were, however, some notable exceptions to this rule.
The global health crisis also changed the way some voters cast their ballots.
The introduction of widespread voting by mail in the Keystone State proved to be popular among voters due to safety concerns amid the pandemic, creating some confusion about how the new method would work and turning the process of counting votes from a breathless sprint into a grueling marathon.
When all the votes were finally counted, Trump outperformed President-elect Joe Biden in Berks by 16,841 votes out of the 207,576 ballots that were cast in the election.
Trump received 109,736 votes, while Biden got 92,895.
County election officials stood by the integrity of the election results and were confident the results had been carefully vetted through an appropriate and definitive process.
— Karen Shuey
Businesses deal with shutdowns
It's difficult to imagine a year bringing more change for businesses in Berks County than 2020.
First, all "non-life-sustaining" businesses in Pennsylvania were closed in March as cases of COVID-19 began to climb across the state. Then, as operations slowly resumed, either with waivers granted in April or as part of phased reopening plans in May and June, few if any returned unchanged.
Masks became a mandatory piece of apparel for customers and workers alike. Businesses invested in plexiglass barriers to separate employees from the sales floor. Stores rushed to implement curbside pickup or beef up their online ordering systems. Meetings with clients or co-workers — even entire conferences — went fully digital.
In many cases, businesses still aren't functioning in any sort of traditional capacity.
Restaurants in Berks resumed indoor dining, but only at 50% capacity, and only to be shuttered again through the end of the year. The Santander Arena hasn't held an event since the pandemic started. And these year-in-review stories are being written in reporters' homes as people all over the U.S. continue to work remotely where possible.
Despite significant challenges caused by the coronavirus, quite a few Berks businesses reported weathering the storm, or better yet, thriving in the current market.
Real estate, construction and IT services are just a few of the industries that managed to grow, while communities such as West Reading and Hamburg have gained more new businesses than they lost.
The diversity of the jobs market in Berks may have helped insulate the region from some of the worst of the pandemic's damage to the economy.
Whenever things do go back to normal though, Amazon's growing presence here — with the announcement of a second fulfillment center on the way — serves as a reminder of the rising influence of e-commerce, which also received a boost during the pandemic.
— Andrew Kulp
Fewer drivers means lost revenue
When the coronavirus pandemic started, Pennsylvania’s transit systems, highways and bridges already needed upgrades, repairs and more funding.
PennDOT was in the process of reallocating funds from local projects in Berks County to Interstate 78, an antiquated, highly traveled highway that connects to New Jersey and New York.
PennDOT, which is responsible for 40,000 miles of roads and 25,000 bridges, is faced with an $8 billion gap in funding. PennDOT is looking at funding alternatives, such as tolling local bridges.
County transportation planners, meanwhile, scaled back and stretched out the timeframe for all major highway upgrades.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike was unable to pay its quarterly payment from tolls to PennDOT. The turnpike laid off 500 employees and went to a cashless toll system. The turnpike lost $160 million in tolls during the peak travel time of summer.
BARTA bus service was severely hampered as ridership dropped to 40% and some employees contracted COVID-19.
The union representing bus drivers rallied for higher pay. The CARES Act awarded BARTA $10 million for safety supplies and lost wages.
PennDOT was able to continue with its project to issue speeding tickets in construction zones.
Berks Alliance, a group of local business representatives, is working on restoring passenger train service to Philadelphia.
There is also a lot of behind-the-scenes work to install charging stations on highways to accommodate more electric vehicles.
— Holly Herman
Entertainment ventures into virtual world
When frigid cold and the first snow, sleet and freezing rain of the season thinned crowds for January's sixth annual Fire + Ice Festival in downtown Reading, it served as an omen for what was in store for the rest of 2020 on the local entertainment scene.
It was a year in which very little happened, as planned due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But one event that did go off — and quite successfully, at that — was the first local production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage's Reading-based play "Sweat," which Genesius Theatre presented to packed houses over seven nights from Jan. 31 through Feb. 8.
Then, a little more than a month later, when Gov. Tom Wolf announced the first coronavirus-related shutdowns, everything came to a screeching halt, including the 30th annual Boscov's Berks Jazz Fest, which was rescheduled in its entirety for March 2021.
While many artistic endeavors were similarly silenced, others ventured into the virtual realm. Leading the way was the Berks County Quarantine Open Mic, a Facebook group formed by local musician Zack DeSantis on March 17, four days after Pennsylvania's mitigation efforts took effect.
Within weeks, Open Mic amassed more than 13,000 members, many of whom would tune in day and night to view livestreamed, acoustic performances by local musicians.
Soon, visual arts organizations like Art Plus Gallery in West Reading and Studio B in Boyertown also were taking to the web with virtual exhibitions.
By the end of summer, with restrictions easing, live music on a small scale began to return to some bars and restaurants in outdoor settings. The Truck N Brew outdoor pop-up venue at Willow Glen Park in Sinking Spring even brought in some touring acts such as rising blues sensation Vanessa Collier.
As the year wound down and a second wave of coronavirus prompted renewed restrictions, most organizations returned to fully virtual performances, including Berks Ballet Theatre, which offered a scaled-back, online-only version of "The Nutcracker" on Dec. 19.
The Reading Symphony Orchestra, meanwhile, recently began streaming performances on its Facebook page through a series called "Virtually Unstoppable," and just announced plans for its first in-person concerts in almost a year, on Jan. 23, if state and local restrictions permit.
— Don Botch
Senior citizens ward off isolation
Mental health officials worry about the long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis on nursing home residents.
Given the risk to seniors, Berks County nursing and retirement homes enacted strict measures to protect their residents.
The result has been that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of seniors have been in lockdown for about nine months.
Dr. Edward B. Mihalik, the county’s former chief mental health officer, testified on the emotional strain on seniors and their families before the state House Human Services Committee in August.
"We’re still trying to wrap our arms around the devastating long-term effects of this disaster," Mihalik told the panel of state legislators.
Ann Barlet, Berks County Office on Aging manager of public advocacy, said COVID-imposed isolation has prevented seniors from participating in milestone family events.
They’re unable to see their grandchildren or attend birthday parties or high school and college graduations, she said. Neither can they attend funerals of longtime friends.
LuAnn Oatman, Berks Encore CEO, said the crisis has heightened the isolation that many seniors experience in normal times.
Even among seniors who live independently, she said, there has been an increased sense of isolation and fear. Unless they make a concerted effort, she said, seniors can feel totally alone.
Barley stressed the importance of window visits and sessions on Skype.
"It’s important to create a routine," she said, "to create a sense of normalcy."
— Ron Devlin
Domestic violence risk rises
The stress of self-isolation, unemployment and the financial fallout of the pandemic along with the disruption of social and protective networks and decreased access to services has exacerbated the risks of domestic violence and abuse.
"The social distancing and family isolation required to stop the spread of COVID-19 has increased danger to people trapped at home with abusers," said Beth Garrigan, Safe Berks CEO.
Safe Berks provides free and confidential services, including shelter, to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and Garrigan said those services are more crucial now than ever.
Though calls for emergency shelter and other services actually dropped during March through May, the numbers can be misleading, she said. Garrigan believes cases of domestic violence have been underreported in part due to the Wolf administration's stay-at-home order that was in effect from late March to early June.
Since the pandemic began, four victims were added to the list of Berks County residents killed by domestic violence since 1999, bringing the total to 71.
Melissa Gonzalez-Torres, 37, was killed May 18 in her residence on Robeson Street in Reading. Christina Blackburn, 23, of Boyertown, was killed April 16 in Boyertown.
More recently, Chad A. Macwilliam, 39 of South Heidelberg Township was fatally stabbed Dec. 13 in his home. Jillian R. Blimline, 38, his partner and the mother of their daughter, was charged with first- and third-degree murder, aggravated assault and possessing an instrument of crime.
A day after Macwilliam’s killing, Terance M. Myers Sr., 35, of Exeter Township suffered a fatal stab wound to the left side of his chest. District Attorney John T. Adams has said the killing was domestic-violence related.
"Everybody is under increased stress now," said Deb Schoener, program director for the Children’s Home of Reading. "There is a lack of income, lack of food, lack of housing; the stressors are astronomical. The protective factor that we anticipate adults having — appropriate coping skills — is being tested."
When that happens, some people can reach their breaking point and snap, sometimes resulting in a mental health crisis, domestic violence or child abuse.
The decrease in calls to the child abuse hotline seen during the early months of the pandemic shutdown has shifted toward an uptick in calls, Schoener said.
— Michelle N. Lynch
Police, courts set up safety protocols
COVID-19 forced local police departments and Berks County emergency services as a whole to implement new procedures.
Early in the pandemic, several police departments announced they wouldn't be sending officers to every non-emergency call. If they could take a report by phone, such as with a complaint about a neighbor making too much noise, they would handle it with a phone call to limit close contact with the public, and vice versa.
Another change that continues to be observed is how officers handle traffic stops. They approach from the passenger side and talk to motorists from a distance.
Those who believed that police were no longer enforcing speed limits were in for a rude awakening in late spring when Northern Berks Regional Police conducted speed details on Routes 61 and 222.
The Berks 9-1-1 center implemented a COVID-19 protocol, asking a series of questions about the caller’s current health, whether they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and whether they’ve recently been exposed to anyone who's tested positive or who had the virus. That allows emergency responders to be better prepared when they arrive.
Berks County Court suspended trails for a time early in the pandemic. When trials resumed over the summer, protocols were implemented to protect jurors, court officers and witnesses.
At the district judge level, preliminary hearings and other proceedings were conducted via video for several months. Hearings resumed, but seating has been limited.
As with many businesses that require face-to-face interactions, the district courts installed plexiglass barriers to protect the staff from coronavirus. At Reading Central Court, the timing of preliminary hearings was spaced out to limit the people in the common waiting area.
— Steven Henshaw
Every day life presents struggles
As COVID-19 forced the cancellation of family reunions, youth sports events and other social gatherings in 2020, there was a widespread struggle with the resulting isolation many felt.
Mental health professionals spoke of clients increasingly having a tough time with not being able to visit loved ones or socialize with friends.
That lack of socialization could be especially difficult on those who already had mental health issues, but even for those who didn't, it could be a drastic and unwelcome change.
Big family events like weddings and birthday parties often had to be postponed or scaled back, and traditions such as holiday dinners often had to be scrapped.
In many cases senior citizens were hit hardest, since the family visits they had long counted on now could put them at too much risk of catching the virus, and they spent most days alone.
And the fields and gyms where so many enjoy gathering for youth and high school sports were often quiet with many events canceled or held with the bleachers nearly empty.
Those feeling lonely due to the pandemic-related restrictions were encouraged by mental health professionals to stay connected through phone calls, text messages and video chats.
But while those conversations could be helpful, many agreed they weren't a true substitute for meeting in person, and as the pandemic dragged on the isolation only got harder.
— Mike Urban
Government changes operations
The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into government operations in a big way.
Municipal governments limited access to buildings to employees only, held meetings virtually and shifted spending to items such as masks and hand sanitizer in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Berks limited access to county facilities to individuals with appointments and to conduct essential business that cannot be postponed or conducted remotely.
People are required to wear a mask to enter the building.
Reading's City Hall still remains closed to the public. Mayor Eddie Moran closed the building to the public in March.
Most municipal meetings shifted to virtual meetings at the beginning of the pandemic.
The state Office of Open Records has said that despite the pandemic, meetings still need to be public and the public needs to be allowed to comment.
"The Sunshine Act is clear that public meetings should be held at public buildings with open public participation whenever possible," Open Records Executive Director Erik Arneson wrote in a blog post.
He added that the agency needs to provide a reasonably accessible method for the public to participate and comment.
"Agencies should bear in mind that transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis," he wrote.
Nearly a year later, most municipal governments are meeting virtually. Some have shifted back to in-person meetings but require masks and social distancing.
While buildings may have been closed to the public, that did not mean governments stopped working. Police, fire and public works departments continued to work throughout the pandemic.
— Jeremy Long
Outdoors offered refuge
COVID-19 upended how we fished, hunted, camped and even how National Audubon Society conducted its Christmas Bird Count. And yet people headed outside to state and local parks in record numbers.
Berks County's anglers were surprised with an unexpectedly early trout season opener. The midweek open on April 7 was intended to lessen the crush of anglers along creeks that usually accompanies a weekend opening day. The rod-length rule became the fisher's version of social distancing.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy urged hikers to stay off the trail in March when some trailheads became overcrowded as many tried to minimize the spread of the virus by escaping to nature to seek isolation.
The 50th anniversary of Earth Day shifted to virtual celebrations or deferred to 2021 as environmental organizations headed online to continue raising money and educating.
Record-breaking numbers of people strained the already-understaffed state park system, including Nolde Forest Environmental Education Center in Cumru Township and French Creek State Park in Union Township.
Environmental research, inspections and legislation continued, though.
Conservationists celebrated the bipartisan passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which makes permanent federal funding for national parks among other things.
In the state, legislators grappled with entering the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the governor signed an advanced recycling bill that could benefit a project to reuse the former Titus Generating Station in Cumru Township.
Longtime conservation work by Berks Nature at Olivet's Blue Mountain Camp near Hamburg and Bob's Woods at the Earle Poole Sanctuary in Alsace Township came to fruition despite the pandemic's damper on fundraising.
Cleanup of the former Exide battery facility stalled after Berks County called for the EPA to re-evaluate the lead contamination in Muhlenberg Township.
Meanwhile, nature marched on. The spotted lanternfly continued its invasion as the state's quarantine zone widened in the spring. In the fall, the insect's egg masses were found in Maine and traced back to a shipment from Pennsylvania.
A state report described a warmer and wetter climate for Pennsylvania and says it might mean fewer dairy cows and many more chickens in Berks. As temperatures and rainfall increase, the state could see changes in farming and infrastructure that might adversely impact water quality.
— Lisa Scheid