Year in review: Challenges, milestones from a turbulent 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded 2020 news in Palo Alto, which also faced a pivotal election, uproar over racial injustice and impacts from devastating wildfires. Photos by Federica Armstrong, Magali Gauthier, Lloyd Lee and Olivia Treynor.

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Year in review: Challenges, milestones from a turbulent 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded 2020 news in Palo Alto, which also faced a pivotal election, uproar over racial injustice and impacts from devastating wildfires. Photos by Federica Armstrong, Magali Gauthier, Lloyd Lee and Olivia Treynor.

The past 12 months brought insurmountable obstacles that forced many of us to adapt, along with complex problems that we'll continue to deal with in the years to come.

Never in our wildest dreams did we anticipate that 2020 would be dominated by the uncontrollable spread of the new coronavirus, which gave rise to words that are now commonplace: Social distancing. Contact tracing. Pandemic fatigue.

Navigating our way through the COVID-19 crisis over the last 10 months — seemingly blindly at times — we ran into other hurdles that spurred immediate action. Palo Altans were among the hundreds of thousands of people nationwide who rallied against racial injustice in June, sparked by the killings of Black people at the hands of police across the U.S. They were also on high alert as the CZU August Lightning Complex fires in neighboring Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties ravaged more than 86,000 acres starting in mid-August.

The year was largely ruled by mask-wearing requirements in nearly every public space, elected leaders who searched for ways to provide economic relief in their cities and the school communities at odds over how to safely reopen campuses.

If 2020 tested our perseverance, it also created opportunities for locals to show compassion. People considered at-risk for COVID-19 were able to stay home as neighbors supplied them with groceries and other essentials. Groups and organizations stepped up to make sure students had resources for distance learning and to aid renters facing financial hardship.

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Before we leave this year behind, the journalists at the Palo Alto Weekly and Palo Alto Online examine how 2020 was a turning point in social justice, education, government, public health, the environment and neighborliness.

When the going gets tough, call in the community

Whether picking up medications for seniors or launching a rent-relief campaign, locals step up to the plate this year to help neighbors in need

by Palo Alto Weekly staff

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Sunita de Tourreil shops at Whole Foods Market in downtown Palo Alto on March 18. The Palo Alto resident went on grocery store strips for the elderly to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

When Santa Clara County leaders ordered a shutdown on March 17 to protect residents from the novel coronavirus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with the sick and the dying, the move sent a shockwave that hit low-income residents particularly hard.

"Unessential" workers who were already struggling to get by — gardeners, child care workers, hairdressers and others — found themselves abruptly incomeless. The unemployment rate in East Palo Alto hit 12.4% by April, or five times the average in April 2019; and even in wealthier Palo Alto, 5.5% of residents were suddenly not receiving a paycheck, up from 2% a year earlier.

The federal government stepped in with the CARES Act to expand unemployment benefits and provide stimulus checks, while cities like Palo Alto and local counties enacted eviction moratoriums to keep people from being turned out onto the streets. But government aid notwithstanding, safety net nonprofits needed to quickly scramble to catch the thousands of residents whose lives had suddenly turned upside down.

Second Harvest Food Bank was deluged in April with seven times the number of calls as it usually receives on its hotline. The food bank went from serving about 270,000 hungry people a month to a half million. The Health Trust's Meals on Wheels program in April started delivering four-and-a-half times the normal number of weekly meals.

National Guard troops and temporary workers pack food into boxes at the Second Harvest Food Bank's Curtner Center in San Jose on June 16. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

A coalition of nonprofits came together to launch the First of the Month campaign, a fundraiser to pay rent for tenants, who are still responsible for eventually paying their landlords. By the end of the year, the three groups — Kafenia Peace Collective, Dreamers Roadmap and Live In Peace — reported raising $2.3 million to aid 372 families, whose average monthly rent was $2,000.

If there has been a silver lining in the face of this year's yawning needs, it has been in evidence in the actions of ordinary people who jumped in to do heroic acts of kindness for neighbors and strangers. When hospitals announced they lacked personal protective equipment for frontline workers, local residents with sewing skills immediately pulled out their Singers to churn out masks by the thousands. Individuals bought takeout meals for delivery to exhausted health care workers. A mobile car mechanic offered to give free tuneups to medical professionals, giving them peace of mind during fraught times.

"You have no idea. ... I am so appreciative," said one grateful recipient of the service, who works with the elderly and the infirm and hadn't brought his car to a mechanic for fear of becoming exposed to the coronavirus.

Seniors and the other vulnerable residents also were left unmoored by the shutdown. To avoid catching the virus, they curtailed visits to pick up medication, stopped walking their pets and didn't want to call for outside help when household items broke. That's where people like Palo Alto resident Howard Kushlan came in.

Since early March, Kushlan has spent his days helping neighbors as part of a corps of volunteer residents that he unintentionally inspired to take action after sending a call out to those in need on social media.

The Palo Altan now knows the best place to get eggs, where to find Clorox wipes, who's in need of distilled water for their sleep apnea machine, which neighbor has a prescription waiting to be picked up and just about every shopping policy at every food store in Palo Alto.

"I just put a post up saying, 'I'm happy to do whatever you need; if you need groceries, if you need shopping, if you need supplies, whatever,'" Kushlan said. "And then it just sort of caught on. Other people ran with it, and it's taken on a life of its own."

Within the first month of the pandemic, Kushlan's post inspired more than 200 residents from well beyond his downtown neighborhood to join in and volunteer to help vulnerable residents throughout the community. That number has held steady since March.

Howard Kushlan purchases juice for a member of the community at Piazza's Fine Foods in Palo Alto on April 1. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Through a Google Doc that he set up, people can add new requests for assistance or remove requests that have been fulfilled.

"It's awesome. People just go in and get things done," he said.

Over the months, he's seen an increase in delivery requests from seniors, most of whom have been living in isolation, he said.

"There's a lot of uncertainty, and so many people are out there that are scared and want help," said Kushlan, who grew up in Palo Alto and now runs Crux, a marketing and political consulting firm.

For Thanksgiving, determined to feed both stomachs and spirits, he and volunteers delivered dinners to shut-ins.

Kushlan said that one good thing that's come from this experience is that he's gotten to know his neighbors.

"In times like these, you have to step outside your comfort zone, and that's when people's best is brought out," he said.

City confronts its own racism

Global movement of protests comes to Palo Alto, challenging city to reform systemic racism

by Lloyd Lee

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Hundreds attend a Juneteenth in Palo Alto's King Plaza on June 19. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Despite the raging COVID-19 pandemic, thousands took to the streets in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park in early June as part of a nationwide call for racial justice and police reform following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was suffocated on a Minneapolis street while in the custody of police. His death was the third high-profile case within a month involving the death of a Black person at the hands of police officers and became the tipping point for the global movement of Black Lives Matter protests.

The monthlong demonstrations, which began along the Midpeninsula on June 1, marked the largest outdoor gatherings following the shelter-in-place orders that went into effect in March. By their very presence, residents made it clear that systemic racism was an issue too urgent to allow to continue.

Ayinde Olukotun, a Menlo School graduate who co-organized a four-mile march through Palo Alto, said he couldn't ignore how Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin suffocated Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — a timestamp that protesters later used as the length for their moments of silence. The march attracted thousands to Palo Alto, including U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine, Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor, East Palo Alto Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones, author and activist Julie Lythcott-Haims, Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry and former judge LaDoris Cordell, and called attention to harmful police policies and entrenched racial problems within the Midpeninsula.

Testimonies from Black residents and community leaders about their experiences in school or interactions with local law enforcement shattered the illusion that Palo Alto was a progressive city without racism. Their experiences exposed that Palo Alto still has a lot more work to do if it wants to achieve social equality.

With mounting public pressure, Palo Alto City Council responded swiftly: On top of a symbolic resolution to affirm that Black lives matter, the city pledged to re-examine its police department policies and consider the "8 Can't Wait" campaign, which outlines law-enforcement standards aimed at reducing police violence; approved a temporary Black Lives Matter mural installation, arguably in record time, to be placed in front of City Hall; and revisited the decadeslong, controversial policy restricting nonresidents from using the 1,400-acre city-owned Foothills Park.

Artists and volunteers work on a mural that reads "Black Lives Matter" on Hamilton Avenue in front of Palo Alto City Hall on June 30. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Though calls to defund the police completely were denied and some policy proposals were challenged by various residents, Palo Alto made significant strides in the months following the local Black Lives Matter protests.

In August, after another incident of police brutality caught national attention with the shooting of Jacob Blake, the council moved to adopt several police department policy revisions recommended by the Human Relations Commission.

These policy changes included specifying the types of de-escalation techniques officers must use to avoid violence, banning several types of strangleholds and expanding its use-of-force policy, clarifying that "all options would be exhausted before shooting."

City Council members agreed in November to also increase police oversight by possibly expanding the independent police auditor's ability to review certain internal complaints related to harassment, discrimination or retaliation. If implemented next year, the decision would reverse the council's December 2019 vote to remove this duty from the auditor's scope.

In the same November meeting, the council also agreed to explore a new program that would give some calls now handled by armed officers to mental health professionals instead, a move intended to resolve situations for which standard police training in de-escalation may not be adequate.

This year also saw another reversal: the charging of former police Sergeant Wayne Benitez, who retired in October 2019 after the city was sued over Benitez's alleged excessive use of force in arresting resident Gustavo Alvarez. At the time, City Manager Ed Shikada refused to disclose whether Benitez's exit was a termination or voluntary.

"We don't comment on circumstances," Shikada said.

The District Attorney's Office initially declined to pursue charges against Benitez but then told news outlets in June that it was reconsidering the case.

"Peace officers who use more force than necessary hurt more than the person they are trying to arrest. They damage the deservedly excellent reputations of the vast majority of officers who work every shift to help people. And they strain the bonds with their communities who expect and deserve that police officers will protect and serve them fairly and professionally," District Attorney Jeff Rosen said in the statement.

If convicted of assault under the color of authority and lying on a police report, Benitez could face up to two years in jail, the District Attorney's Office said.

Foothills Park officially opened to the public, regardless of where they reside, on Dec. 17. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

In addition to police reform, the city decided to scrap a newly approved pilot program' allowing a limited number of nonresidents access to Foothills Park and opened the preserve to the public on Dec. 17, after the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and a group of residents filed a lawsuit, alleging that the nature preserve's 1965 resident-only law violated nonresidents' rights to travel, free speech and free assembly, and stemmed from the city's history of racial discrimination. A group of residents launched a petition to put the nonresident ban to a vote and maintain the policy in the interim but failed to collect about 2,600 signatures needed by the Dec. 16 deadline.

While the city made some important steps toward achieving racial justice, more remain on the city's agenda awaiting completion.

The city is still looking to have its law enforcement agency join Santa Clara County's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team program, which would help police officers determine which calls involve mental health issues. Talks to hire more community service officers who can answer low-level calls, such as car accidents involving no injuries, continue. And calls for increased transparency from the police department remain to be answered.

With the temporary Black Lives Matter mural removed, the city also hopes to install something more permanent at King Plaza, which is named after monumental civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

Pandemic turns 'education on its ear'

With campus reopenings in limbo, students pivot to online learning

by Elena Kadvany

Palo Alto Unified's initial closure of district schools in March was expected to last for three weeks, but stretched for months. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

On Friday, March 13, Palo Alto students and teachers left their campuses for what they thought would be a three-week closure to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

They couldn't have known that an unparalleled disruption to education was taking root, and that nine months later many of them would still be learning from home on their computer screens.

"The virus has turned education on its ear across the entire nation," Superintendent Don Austin said. "In time, I would like to look back at the year as a point when we built and exhibited resilience in the face of never-ending challenges in areas largely beyond our control and expertise."

The pandemic forced schools that had only dabbled in remote learning to become full online operations overnight. Many parents became de facto homeschool teachers. Administrators rushed to purchase hundreds of bottles of hand sanitizer and industrial-grade air purifiers while managing intense fear and division in the community. Parents, teachers and students stayed up late week after week to voice their concerns about school closures to the Board of Education over Zoom — both those who staunchly opposed reopening and those desperate for in-person support.

It was an emotional year for the school community, exacerbated by constantly changing public health restrictions that frustrated the school leaders, who frequently had to scrap plans put in place just days before, and teachers and parents who felt that communication from the district was neither transparent nor swift enough.

Palo Alto Unified board members and district leaders keep their distance from one another at an emergency meeting on March 12. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Campuses initially closed that Friday in mid-March, less than 24 hours after Palo Alto school officials had backed a plan to keep campuses open but offer limited online learning alternatives to students who chose to stay home. Leaders had expected to reopen after spring break but by April 1, all 32 of Santa Clara County's school district superintendents and the county superintendent of schools signed a joint letter agreeing their campuses would be closed for the rest of the school year.

Many agreed the spring months' education amounted to "crisis learning" that was not at the level that both parents and schools expected.

By summer, opposition was mounting among teachers as the district and teachers union negotiated working conditions for reopening schools in the fall. The union sent what would be the first of several open letters lobbying the school board to delay a return to in-person instruction. The board for months held fast to its support for bringing students back to school in person as soon and as safely as possible, particularly students without help at home or who struggle with remote learning.

And in July, the announcement from Gov. Gavin Newsom that public and private schools in counties on the state's coronavirus watch list could not reopen for in-person instruction until they've been off the list for 14 days threw another wrench into the district’s plans to reopen elementary schools the next month.

The new school year started in August fully online, and heated debate continued over whether and how to reopen schools. By September, the district was able to reopen some campuses to serve students who had been identified as struggling academically or who needed quiet, supportive places to learn, as well as some students with disabilities. The next month, a staggered reopening of the elementary schools began and families who wanted their students to learn in person could choose a hybrid option.

Kindergarten teacher Sara McNinch helps one of her students on the first day of in-person instruction at Fairmeadow Elementary School in Palo Alto on Oct. 12. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

The district's youngest students returned to campuses that looked and felt vastly different, with desks separated by clear plastic barriers, mask requirements and socially distanced recess. The district started publicly reporting COVID-19 cases among students and staff and created contact-tracing teams. Roughly 2,100 students returned to in-person instruction.

Emblematic of the unpredictability of this year, the district's plan to reopen the middle and high schools in January was disrupted by the state's new regional stay-at-home order, which took effect in Santa Clara County in early December. Under the order, schools that are already opened for in-person instruction can remain open; however, the district quickly realized there was "no viable path" to reopening the middle and high schools as planned, raising the possibility that some students will go more than a year without returning to in-person learning.

The district is now discussing ideas for on-campus activities for small groups of high schoolers that could start in January and bringing back sixth graders for in-person instruction in mid-March. At the state level, the pending Assembly Bill 10 would require public schools to reopen in stages by early spring depending on the public health data in their counties. And the California Teachers Association is pushing for teachers to be vaccinated early, after health care workers.

The coronavirus was the theme of the November school board campaign, as was eroding trust in the school community, which motivated several candidates to run. When the votes were tallied, incumbents Jennifer DiBrienza and Todd Collins won reelection and parent Jesse Ladomirak was elected to her first term.

In 2021, the newly constituted board will be facing more fraught reopening decisions and the difficult work of sustaining real focus on central issues such as closing the achievement gap and student mental health — while the long-term impacts, both academic and social-emotional, of extended school closures largely remain to be seen.

A year that went up in smoke and flames

A major wildfire scorches the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Midpeninsula experiences extreme heat, and smoke obscures the sun

by Sue Dremann

A small hot spot burns in the Loma Mar area by the CZU August Lightning Complex fires on Aug. 25. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

The largest wildfire to burn the Santa Cruz Mountains in more than 100 years ushered in an autumn of "apocalyptic" smoke and flames to the Bay Area, with three wildfires to the west, east and north. Hazardous smoke that rained ash, along with other air-quality conditions led some experts and Gov. Gavin Newsom to point to climate change and land-management practices as the culprits.

A series of heat waves began in late May, successively drying trees, shrubs and grasses and priming them for ignition. On Aug. 15, a heat wave combined with a rare, massive dry-lightning cell passed over the Bay Area. Lightning strikes from the spectacular celestial show, which included house-shaking thunderclaps that sent household pets scurrying under beds, sparked dozens of blazes. Three local fires turned into out-of-control infernos.

The CZU August Lightning Complex Fire scorched 86,509 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties and devastated some of the area's largest redwood preserves. The fire destroyed 1,490 structures and damaged 140 others. One person died. About 77,000 people — a number larger than the population of Palo Alto — were ordered to evacuate in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties.

The fire caused the closure of open space preserves. Palo Alto residents living in the foothills were warned to prepare to evacuate as the fire came up to the west side of Skyline Boulevard, also known as State Route 35.

The CZU fire was not the largest nearby blaze, however, to impact Palo Alto and surrounding communities. The SCU Lightning Complex fire tore through five counties — southeastern Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus — destroying 396,624 acres and razing 222 structures. The LNU Lightning Complex fire to the north in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties burned 363,220 acres. Smoke from these and other large fires deposited ash throughout the area and created hazardous health conditions triggering 30 consecutive days of Spare the Air alerts.

The awe-inspiring power of nature wasn't through with the Bay Area yet, however. Residents awoke to eerie, orange skies and trees that appeared silhouetted against the dim light on Sept. 9, which was caused by smoke from the August Complex fires in Mendocino County — a blanket so thick it blotted out the sun.

The skies over Palo Alto City Hall on Sept. 9 had a red-orange tint that resulted from smoke that reached the Bay Area from the August Lightning Complex fires in Mendocino County. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Scorching temperatures skyrocketed on Sept. 6, reaching records as high as 108 degrees in Palo Alto and higher elsewhere, which lasted into the week. The city of Palo Alto opened a cooling center at Mitchell Park Community Center to help residents escape from the dangerous heat.

The CZU fire was finally contained on Sept. 22, more than a month after it began. In early October, as parts of the land still smoldered, open-space land managers said it could take years for the plant and animal communities to recover.

Land managers and cities took the wildfires as a wakeup call. The redwood forest is getting drier and the summers are longer with shorter rainy periods, Noelle Chambers Thurlow, vice president of conservation for Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), said in October. POST's more than 8,000-acre San Vicente Redwoods Preserve, which it co-owns with the Sempervirens Fund, was badly burned.

Peter Cowan, POST director of conservation science, said in a Nov. 9 blog post that the agency has been assessing the fire damage and the measures staff had taken prior to the wildfire to see what helped reduce the severity of the damage. Crews are repairing damaged roads and culverts to protect streams from sediment and are replacing scientific equipment to monitor the fire's impacts on wildlife populations.

The CZU fire prompted some residents and government leaders in areas where wildland and urban living interface to reassess their fire-management plans. The Town of Portola Valley convened an ad hoc fire preparedness committee in June, prior to the CZU fire, to make recommendations to the Town Council regarding communications and outreach, evacuation routes, home hardening and insurance and vegetation management.

Andy Kerr, co-owner of Alice's Restaurant, chats with a group of firefighters coming off a shift outside Loma Mar Store over pastries he delivered to them on Aug. 25. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Those plans were met with increasing urgency after the CZU fire. Woodside Fire Protection District, along with Portola Valley, vigorously insisted in a letter this fall to Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District that additional and immediate land-management of Midpen's preserves, particularly those near Windy Hill and The Sequoias senior community, be enacted. Midpen agreed to have more collaborative discussions, according to the fire district.

Midpen is also working on a longer-range wildfire resiliency plan. A public hearing review of the plan's draft Environmental Impact Report is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 27.

Palo Alto has also updated its website "Ready, Set, Go!" with more information on residential wildfire preparedness. In late August, the city developed a new webpage showing regional fire status and resources. This year the city developed an evacuation map for residents to download online and in conjunction with Santa Clara County Fire Department, the city is formalizing the Palo Alto evacuation zones in the Zonehaven software system, which shows areas under threat of or in evacuation.

City staff are communicating with neighborhood leaders in the foothills area to listen to their concerns and provide safety information and they have provided support for an emergency exit through Foothills Park through Gate 5 if it is needed, spokeswoman Meghan Horrigan-Taylor said.

In December 2019, the Utilities Department published their CPAU Wildfire Mitigation Plan, required by State Senate Bill 901, which seeks to minimize risks that the utility's distribution system might cause a fire ignition. That policy includes sending direct messages to customers when they anticipated the fire risk could potentially cause a power shutoff.

Flipping the City Council

The election gives Palo Alto's residentialists a clear advantage. How will they use it?

by Gennady Sheyner

Voters cast ballots in person at a polling center inside the Rinconada Library in Palo Alto on Nov. 3. Photo by Olivia Treynor.

In a year marked by dizzying change and existential anxiety, Palo Alto voters were in no mood for surprises when they went out to cast — or, more likely, mailed in — their ballots this fall.

Faced with a deep and diverse pool of 10 candidates who ranged from City Hall veterans looking for a fresh chance to serve to political newcomers with bold ideas, residents flocked to the familiar.

Both incumbents, Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka, were reelected to new four-year terms.

Greer Stone, a Gunn High history teacher and former member of the city's Human Relations Commission, also won a council seat, four years after falling short in his first bid.

But the biggest winner on Nov. 3 was Pat Burt, a former two-time mayor who spent nine years on the council before his last term ended in 2016. A longtime community leader who helped spearhead most of the city's major initiatives — from grade separations of the railway to the infrastructure plan to a proposed business tax — Burt will find himself in a very familiar position at the center of the council's political spectrum. His candidacy was endorsed by neither the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ) — a political group that endorsed candidates on the council's slow-growth "residentialist wing" — nor by the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, which favored the three "progressive" candidates who advocated for bold action on issues such as housing and police reform: Raven Malone, Steven Lee and Cari Templeton. While being a household name doesn't always guarantee a fresh election (as the experiences of Larry Moody in East Palo Alto and Lenny Seigel in Mountain View demonstrate), Burt cruised to victory and held a lead of nearly 1,000 votes over the second-place finisher, Kou, when the final tally was certified, finishing with 14,353 of Palo Altans' votes.

While the election results will not dramatically transform the council's roster — with only two of the seven seats being filled by new members — it will radically alter the political dynamics. For the past four years, the council's more pro-growth-leaning members have enjoyed a narrow majority — a power that they used to chip away at the city's stringent requirements for ground-floor retail; lower housing-impact fees for new developments; and remove the downtown limit on office development. All of these issues were decided by 4-3 votes (and, before 2018, by 5-4 votes).

In the fall, the Palo Alto City Council considered a proposal that would allow banks, law firms and other office uses to replace shops and restaurants in many parts of the city. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Only two members of this four-member majority — Alison Cormack and Greg Tanaka — will return to the council next year. With Mayor Adrian Fine opting not to seek a fresh term and Councilwoman Liz Kniss terming out, the camp favoring slower city growth will now have a clear edge as Stone joins fellow PASZ-endorsed council members Kou, Vice Mayor Tom DuBois and Councilman Eric Filseth in a likely political alliance.

Burt, who has opposed many of the recent actions by the four-member majority (including recent proposals to scale back ground-floor protections for retail and to allow lame-duck council members to appoint next year's commissioners) and who has been aligned with Stone in their mutual distaste for state housing legislation such as Senate Bill 50, may turn the residentialists' slim 4-3 edge into a commanding 5-2 advantage.

On some issues, that may not matter. The council has been in virtual lockstep (with Kou often being the sole dissenter) when it comes to supporting policies that encourage more below-market-rate housing. They all voted, for example, to spend $10 million of public funds to support the 59-unit development known as Wilton Court, which targets low-income residents and adults with disability. The council has also united to pursue grade separation at rail crossings, cut the city budget, plan for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and pursue reforms in the Police Department, which include recent revisions to use-of-force policies.

In other areas, the residentialists are expected to flex their new power. This could mean more restrictions on new office space, higher development-impact fees to support affordable housing, stronger support for retaining laws that require ground-floor retail and increased skepticism toward proposals for market-rate housing.

As the year came to an end, the spirit of compromise that has guided the council's COVID-19 recovery gave way to a nasty political donnybrook over appointments to the Planning and Transportation Commission. Even as the council approved in November a new handbook specifying that appointments should occur in the spring, the four-member majority moved to vote on appointments in December, thus giving the lame-duck council members a chance to name advisers to the next council. All three council members in the minority then skipped the planning commission interviews, effectively preventing them from taking place (one member of the four-member majority also couldn't make it). The appointments will now take place in 2021.

With the year-ending squabble, Palo Alto is facing a question that can also extend to the nation as 2020 comes to an end. Will the political battle escalate next year, as power shifts from one faction to another? Or should their residents, having placed their faith in a moderate political veteran, expect a new era of cooperation and consensus?

The virus that changed everything

In an instant, a pandemic reshapes life on the Midpeninsula

by Linda Taaffe

Alyssa Weaver, a second-year physician assistant student at Stanford School of Medicine, draws blood from a participant at a COVID-19 antibody testing site in Mountain View on April 4. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

In early March, local health officials began to sound the alarm on the novel coronavirus, a respiratory disease that had made its way into the Bay Area in January and was starting to spread within the community.

"It is important to recognize how difficult the times ahead may be and how you must now take assertive action to prepare for them," Dr. Scott Morrow, San Mateo County's chief health officer, warned residents on March 5 as Bay Area counties began rolling out the country's first legal directives limiting the size of social gatherings after the state reported its first-known coronavirus death the previous day.

By March 17, those words began to resonate when Bay Area public health officials shut down all nonessential businesses in six counties, including Santa Clara and San Mateo, and residents were ordered to stay at home for three weeks. A statewide shutdown followed three days later after virus projections showed that 56% of California's 40 million residents could become infected by the new coronavirus within two months.

Overnight, the Midpeninsula turned into a ghost town: On the first day of the shelter-in-place order, traffic dropped by 50% on Bay Area roads and Caltrain ridership dropped 90%. Within days, hotel occupancy rates in Palo Alto declined from 80% to below 20%, and by the end of the month, the leisure and hospitality industry reported 12,100 job losses in the north and south bay combined. Local tech companies told employees to work from home indefinitely, and Stanford University shifted classes online and asked its approximately 7,000 undergraduates to vacate the campus by March 20.

Few cars travel during rush hour at the intersection of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road in Palo Alto on March 19. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

In the wake of the swift and uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, local medical centers, pharmaceutical companies and health officials accelerated the development of new health protocols, testing methods and treatments to stop this mysterious virus.

Stanford Health Care was among the first to roll out a diagnostic test approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that rapidly identified people with the illness within 12 to 24 hours. Stanford announced on March 5 that it would be using the new coronavirus test in-house to verify suspected cases of the illness at its hospitals after officials confirmed that the health center was treating a "few" patients who tested positive for the disease.

Palo Alto resident Monica Yeung-Arima, who returned home infected with the virus after traveling to Egypt, was among the earliest patients to be screened for COVID-19 with Stanford's new test kit. Doctors met her in the parking lot at Palo Alto Medical Foundation's urgent care clinic and whisked her into a room for an exam. Days later, she became one of the first people in the nation diagnosed with COVID-19 to be treated with the clinical-trial antiviral drug remdesivir that Foster City biopharmaceutical research company Gilead Sciences Inc. had developed to treat Ebola. After five days of treatment, she began to feel better and was released from the hospital.

By the end of March, Bay Area cities took up the mantle to test their first responders, health care workers and members of the public using technology from Menlo Park company Avellino. The testing drive-thrus launch with the city of Hayward. City and public health leaders said the testing sites were intended to take pressure off hospital emergency rooms and improve the region's ability to suppress new transmissions through isolation after testing. Stanford Health Care also set up testing tents in Menlo Park and on Stanford University campus in anticipation of more people coming down with the virus. By March 24, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom, 27,650 tests had been conducted statewide.

Stanford Health Care's COVID-19 drive-thru testing site popped up in Menlo Park, pictured above, and on the Stanford campus days after the shutdown began. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Despite pop-up testing sites, Santa Clara County hospitals continued to lag in testing, prompting Santa Clara County to issue a new order on June 10 requiring hospitals and clinics to test at least three categories of people: patients within their systems who have COVID-19 symptoms, have been exposed to COVID-19, or who need to be tested frequently because they are at higher risk of exposure through their work in health care or at a grocery store.

After cases continued to spike over the ensuing months, the state unveiled a new COVID-19 tracking system in August to create a more stringent process to determine when counties can move forward with indoor business operations. Santa Clara County found itself placed in the most restrictive tier, indicating widespread transmission.

Three months later, with vaccines on the horizon, Newsom ordered a statewide curfew prohibiting all nonessential work, movement and gathering between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

"This pandemic is like a high-speed train, and our projections tell us that we are on target to derail by the third week of December if we don't apply brakes right now with all our collective might," Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said while unveiling the new mandatory health directives.

As 2020 comes to an end, there still is no clear end to the crisis. Over the past nine months, the county's shelter-in-place order has been extended twice and reinstated as recently as December. Residents have become accustomed to exchanging tips on how to get tested for the coronavirus and how long it'll take to receive results. Restaurants, retailers and service providers continue to teeter back and forth between limited indoor operations and curbside and outdoor-only services to a full halt in some cases, and schools remain unclear on when campuses will be allowed to fully reopen.

As of Dec. 29, the county reported 67,423 cumulative COVID-19 cases and 673 deaths.

The first 5,850 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, which arrived in Santa Clara County at about 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 15, heralded what battle-weary public health leaders called "a glimmer of hope in the long fight" against COVID-19.

Charles Davis, Veterans Affairs recreational specialist, gives two thumbs up after receving his first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in Palo Alto on Dec. 16. Photo by Federica Armstrong.

Read more of our year-in-review coverage:

Test your knowledge of Palo Alto happenings in 2020 with our news quiz

Letter from the editor: Navigating through this upside-down year

2020 rewind: A timeline of a year like no other

A surreal year: Photos capture historic events that shaped 2020

Tasty against all odds: Our nine most memorable meals of 2020

2020 vision: The year in film

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Year in review: Challenges, milestones from a turbulent 2020

by Palo Alto Weekly staff / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Dec 31, 2020, 8:35 am

The past 12 months brought insurmountable obstacles that forced many of us to adapt, along with complex problems that we'll continue to deal with in the years to come.

Never in our wildest dreams did we anticipate that 2020 would be dominated by the uncontrollable spread of the new coronavirus, which gave rise to words that are now commonplace: Social distancing. Contact tracing. Pandemic fatigue.

Navigating our way through the COVID-19 crisis over the last 10 months — seemingly blindly at times — we ran into other hurdles that spurred immediate action. Palo Altans were among the hundreds of thousands of people nationwide who rallied against racial injustice in June, sparked by the killings of Black people at the hands of police across the U.S. They were also on high alert as the CZU August Lightning Complex fires in neighboring Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties ravaged more than 86,000 acres starting in mid-August.

The year was largely ruled by mask-wearing requirements in nearly every public space, elected leaders who searched for ways to provide economic relief in their cities and the school communities at odds over how to safely reopen campuses.

If 2020 tested our perseverance, it also created opportunities for locals to show compassion. People considered at-risk for COVID-19 were able to stay home as neighbors supplied them with groceries and other essentials. Groups and organizations stepped up to make sure students had resources for distance learning and to aid renters facing financial hardship.

Before we leave this year behind, the journalists at the Palo Alto Weekly and Palo Alto Online examine how 2020 was a turning point in social justice, education, government, public health, the environment and neighborliness.

When the going gets tough, call in the community

Whether picking up medications for seniors or launching a rent-relief campaign, locals step up to the plate this year to help neighbors in need

by Palo Alto Weekly staff

When Santa Clara County leaders ordered a shutdown on March 17 to protect residents from the novel coronavirus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with the sick and the dying, the move sent a shockwave that hit low-income residents particularly hard.

"Unessential" workers who were already struggling to get by — gardeners, child care workers, hairdressers and others — found themselves abruptly incomeless. The unemployment rate in East Palo Alto hit 12.4% by April, or five times the average in April 2019; and even in wealthier Palo Alto, 5.5% of residents were suddenly not receiving a paycheck, up from 2% a year earlier.

The federal government stepped in with the CARES Act to expand unemployment benefits and provide stimulus checks, while cities like Palo Alto and local counties enacted eviction moratoriums to keep people from being turned out onto the streets. But government aid notwithstanding, safety net nonprofits needed to quickly scramble to catch the thousands of residents whose lives had suddenly turned upside down.

Second Harvest Food Bank was deluged in April with seven times the number of calls as it usually receives on its hotline. The food bank went from serving about 270,000 hungry people a month to a half million. The Health Trust's Meals on Wheels program in April started delivering four-and-a-half times the normal number of weekly meals.

A coalition of nonprofits came together to launch the First of the Month campaign, a fundraiser to pay rent for tenants, who are still responsible for eventually paying their landlords. By the end of the year, the three groups — Kafenia Peace Collective, Dreamers Roadmap and Live In Peace — reported raising $2.3 million to aid 372 families, whose average monthly rent was $2,000.

If there has been a silver lining in the face of this year's yawning needs, it has been in evidence in the actions of ordinary people who jumped in to do heroic acts of kindness for neighbors and strangers. When hospitals announced they lacked personal protective equipment for frontline workers, local residents with sewing skills immediately pulled out their Singers to churn out masks by the thousands. Individuals bought takeout meals for delivery to exhausted health care workers. A mobile car mechanic offered to give free tuneups to medical professionals, giving them peace of mind during fraught times.

"You have no idea. ... I am so appreciative," said one grateful recipient of the service, who works with the elderly and the infirm and hadn't brought his car to a mechanic for fear of becoming exposed to the coronavirus.

Seniors and the other vulnerable residents also were left unmoored by the shutdown. To avoid catching the virus, they curtailed visits to pick up medication, stopped walking their pets and didn't want to call for outside help when household items broke. That's where people like Palo Alto resident Howard Kushlan came in.

Since early March, Kushlan has spent his days helping neighbors as part of a corps of volunteer residents that he unintentionally inspired to take action after sending a call out to those in need on social media.

The Palo Altan now knows the best place to get eggs, where to find Clorox wipes, who's in need of distilled water for their sleep apnea machine, which neighbor has a prescription waiting to be picked up and just about every shopping policy at every food store in Palo Alto.

"I just put a post up saying, 'I'm happy to do whatever you need; if you need groceries, if you need shopping, if you need supplies, whatever,'" Kushlan said. "And then it just sort of caught on. Other people ran with it, and it's taken on a life of its own."

Within the first month of the pandemic, Kushlan's post inspired more than 200 residents from well beyond his downtown neighborhood to join in and volunteer to help vulnerable residents throughout the community. That number has held steady since March.

Through a Google Doc that he set up, people can add new requests for assistance or remove requests that have been fulfilled.

"It's awesome. People just go in and get things done," he said.

Over the months, he's seen an increase in delivery requests from seniors, most of whom have been living in isolation, he said.

"There's a lot of uncertainty, and so many people are out there that are scared and want help," said Kushlan, who grew up in Palo Alto and now runs Crux, a marketing and political consulting firm.

For Thanksgiving, determined to feed both stomachs and spirits, he and volunteers delivered dinners to shut-ins.

Kushlan said that one good thing that's come from this experience is that he's gotten to know his neighbors.

"In times like these, you have to step outside your comfort zone, and that's when people's best is brought out," he said.

City confronts its own racism

Global movement of protests comes to Palo Alto, challenging city to reform systemic racism

by Lloyd Lee

Despite the raging COVID-19 pandemic, thousands took to the streets in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park in early June as part of a nationwide call for racial justice and police reform following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was suffocated on a Minneapolis street while in the custody of police. His death was the third high-profile case within a month involving the death of a Black person at the hands of police officers and became the tipping point for the global movement of Black Lives Matter protests.

The monthlong demonstrations, which began along the Midpeninsula on June 1, marked the largest outdoor gatherings following the shelter-in-place orders that went into effect in March. By their very presence, residents made it clear that systemic racism was an issue too urgent to allow to continue.

Ayinde Olukotun, a Menlo School graduate who co-organized a four-mile march through Palo Alto, said he couldn't ignore how Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin suffocated Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — a timestamp that protesters later used as the length for their moments of silence. The march attracted thousands to Palo Alto, including U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine, Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor, East Palo Alto Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones, author and activist Julie Lythcott-Haims, Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry and former judge LaDoris Cordell, and called attention to harmful police policies and entrenched racial problems within the Midpeninsula.

Testimonies from Black residents and community leaders about their experiences in school or interactions with local law enforcement shattered the illusion that Palo Alto was a progressive city without racism. Their experiences exposed that Palo Alto still has a lot more work to do if it wants to achieve social equality.

With mounting public pressure, Palo Alto City Council responded swiftly: On top of a symbolic resolution to affirm that Black lives matter, the city pledged to re-examine its police department policies and consider the "8 Can't Wait" campaign, which outlines law-enforcement standards aimed at reducing police violence; approved a temporary Black Lives Matter mural installation, arguably in record time, to be placed in front of City Hall; and revisited the decadeslong, controversial policy restricting nonresidents from using the 1,400-acre city-owned Foothills Park.

Though calls to defund the police completely were denied and some policy proposals were challenged by various residents, Palo Alto made significant strides in the months following the local Black Lives Matter protests.

In August, after another incident of police brutality caught national attention with the shooting of Jacob Blake, the council moved to adopt several police department policy revisions recommended by the Human Relations Commission.

These policy changes included specifying the types of de-escalation techniques officers must use to avoid violence, banning several types of strangleholds and expanding its use-of-force policy, clarifying that "all options would be exhausted before shooting."

City Council members agreed in November to also increase police oversight by possibly expanding the independent police auditor's ability to review certain internal complaints related to harassment, discrimination or retaliation. If implemented next year, the decision would reverse the council's December 2019 vote to remove this duty from the auditor's scope.

In the same November meeting, the council also agreed to explore a new program that would give some calls now handled by armed officers to mental health professionals instead, a move intended to resolve situations for which standard police training in de-escalation may not be adequate.

This year also saw another reversal: the charging of former police Sergeant Wayne Benitez, who retired in October 2019 after the city was sued over Benitez's alleged excessive use of force in arresting resident Gustavo Alvarez. At the time, City Manager Ed Shikada refused to disclose whether Benitez's exit was a termination or voluntary.

"We don't comment on circumstances," Shikada said.

The District Attorney's Office initially declined to pursue charges against Benitez but then told news outlets in June that it was reconsidering the case.

"Peace officers who use more force than necessary hurt more than the person they are trying to arrest. They damage the deservedly excellent reputations of the vast majority of officers who work every shift to help people. And they strain the bonds with their communities who expect and deserve that police officers will protect and serve them fairly and professionally," District Attorney Jeff Rosen said in the statement.

If convicted of assault under the color of authority and lying on a police report, Benitez could face up to two years in jail, the District Attorney's Office said.

In addition to police reform, the city decided to scrap a newly approved pilot program' allowing a limited number of nonresidents access to Foothills Park and opened the preserve to the public on Dec. 17, after the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP and a group of residents filed a lawsuit, alleging that the nature preserve's 1965 resident-only law violated nonresidents' rights to travel, free speech and free assembly, and stemmed from the city's history of racial discrimination. A group of residents launched a petition to put the nonresident ban to a vote and maintain the policy in the interim but failed to collect about 2,600 signatures needed by the Dec. 16 deadline.

While the city made some important steps toward achieving racial justice, more remain on the city's agenda awaiting completion.

The city is still looking to have its law enforcement agency join Santa Clara County's Psychiatric Emergency Response Team program, which would help police officers determine which calls involve mental health issues. Talks to hire more community service officers who can answer low-level calls, such as car accidents involving no injuries, continue. And calls for increased transparency from the police department remain to be answered.

With the temporary Black Lives Matter mural removed, the city also hopes to install something more permanent at King Plaza, which is named after monumental civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

Pandemic turns 'education on its ear'

With campus reopenings in limbo, students pivot to online learning

by Elena Kadvany

On Friday, March 13, Palo Alto students and teachers left their campuses for what they thought would be a three-week closure to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

They couldn't have known that an unparalleled disruption to education was taking root, and that nine months later many of them would still be learning from home on their computer screens.

"The virus has turned education on its ear across the entire nation," Superintendent Don Austin said. "In time, I would like to look back at the year as a point when we built and exhibited resilience in the face of never-ending challenges in areas largely beyond our control and expertise."

The pandemic forced schools that had only dabbled in remote learning to become full online operations overnight. Many parents became de facto homeschool teachers. Administrators rushed to purchase hundreds of bottles of hand sanitizer and industrial-grade air purifiers while managing intense fear and division in the community. Parents, teachers and students stayed up late week after week to voice their concerns about school closures to the Board of Education over Zoom — both those who staunchly opposed reopening and those desperate for in-person support.

It was an emotional year for the school community, exacerbated by constantly changing public health restrictions that frustrated the school leaders, who frequently had to scrap plans put in place just days before, and teachers and parents who felt that communication from the district was neither transparent nor swift enough.

Campuses initially closed that Friday in mid-March, less than 24 hours after Palo Alto school officials had backed a plan to keep campuses open but offer limited online learning alternatives to students who chose to stay home. Leaders had expected to reopen after spring break but by April 1, all 32 of Santa Clara County's school district superintendents and the county superintendent of schools signed a joint letter agreeing their campuses would be closed for the rest of the school year.

Many agreed the spring months' education amounted to "crisis learning" that was not at the level that both parents and schools expected.

By summer, opposition was mounting among teachers as the district and teachers union negotiated working conditions for reopening schools in the fall. The union sent what would be the first of several open letters lobbying the school board to delay a return to in-person instruction. The board for months held fast to its support for bringing students back to school in person as soon and as safely as possible, particularly students without help at home or who struggle with remote learning.

And in July, the announcement from Gov. Gavin Newsom that public and private schools in counties on the state's coronavirus watch list could not reopen for in-person instruction until they've been off the list for 14 days threw another wrench into the district’s plans to reopen elementary schools the next month.

The new school year started in August fully online, and heated debate continued over whether and how to reopen schools. By September, the district was able to reopen some campuses to serve students who had been identified as struggling academically or who needed quiet, supportive places to learn, as well as some students with disabilities. The next month, a staggered reopening of the elementary schools began and families who wanted their students to learn in person could choose a hybrid option.

The district's youngest students returned to campuses that looked and felt vastly different, with desks separated by clear plastic barriers, mask requirements and socially distanced recess. The district started publicly reporting COVID-19 cases among students and staff and created contact-tracing teams. Roughly 2,100 students returned to in-person instruction.

Emblematic of the unpredictability of this year, the district's plan to reopen the middle and high schools in January was disrupted by the state's new regional stay-at-home order, which took effect in Santa Clara County in early December. Under the order, schools that are already opened for in-person instruction can remain open; however, the district quickly realized there was "no viable path" to reopening the middle and high schools as planned, raising the possibility that some students will go more than a year without returning to in-person learning.

The district is now discussing ideas for on-campus activities for small groups of high schoolers that could start in January and bringing back sixth graders for in-person instruction in mid-March. At the state level, the pending Assembly Bill 10 would require public schools to reopen in stages by early spring depending on the public health data in their counties. And the California Teachers Association is pushing for teachers to be vaccinated early, after health care workers.

The coronavirus was the theme of the November school board campaign, as was eroding trust in the school community, which motivated several candidates to run. When the votes were tallied, incumbents Jennifer DiBrienza and Todd Collins won reelection and parent Jesse Ladomirak was elected to her first term.

In 2021, the newly constituted board will be facing more fraught reopening decisions and the difficult work of sustaining real focus on central issues such as closing the achievement gap and student mental health — while the long-term impacts, both academic and social-emotional, of extended school closures largely remain to be seen.

A year that went up in smoke and flames

A major wildfire scorches the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Midpeninsula experiences extreme heat, and smoke obscures the sun

by Sue Dremann

The largest wildfire to burn the Santa Cruz Mountains in more than 100 years ushered in an autumn of "apocalyptic" smoke and flames to the Bay Area, with three wildfires to the west, east and north. Hazardous smoke that rained ash, along with other air-quality conditions led some experts and Gov. Gavin Newsom to point to climate change and land-management practices as the culprits.

A series of heat waves began in late May, successively drying trees, shrubs and grasses and priming them for ignition. On Aug. 15, a heat wave combined with a rare, massive dry-lightning cell passed over the Bay Area. Lightning strikes from the spectacular celestial show, which included house-shaking thunderclaps that sent household pets scurrying under beds, sparked dozens of blazes. Three local fires turned into out-of-control infernos.

The CZU August Lightning Complex Fire scorched 86,509 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties and devastated some of the area's largest redwood preserves. The fire destroyed 1,490 structures and damaged 140 others. One person died. About 77,000 people — a number larger than the population of Palo Alto — were ordered to evacuate in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties.

The fire caused the closure of open space preserves. Palo Alto residents living in the foothills were warned to prepare to evacuate as the fire came up to the west side of Skyline Boulevard, also known as State Route 35.

The CZU fire was not the largest nearby blaze, however, to impact Palo Alto and surrounding communities. The SCU Lightning Complex fire tore through five counties — southeastern Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus — destroying 396,624 acres and razing 222 structures. The LNU Lightning Complex fire to the north in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties burned 363,220 acres. Smoke from these and other large fires deposited ash throughout the area and created hazardous health conditions triggering 30 consecutive days of Spare the Air alerts.

The awe-inspiring power of nature wasn't through with the Bay Area yet, however. Residents awoke to eerie, orange skies and trees that appeared silhouetted against the dim light on Sept. 9, which was caused by smoke from the August Complex fires in Mendocino County — a blanket so thick it blotted out the sun.

Scorching temperatures skyrocketed on Sept. 6, reaching records as high as 108 degrees in Palo Alto and higher elsewhere, which lasted into the week. The city of Palo Alto opened a cooling center at Mitchell Park Community Center to help residents escape from the dangerous heat.

The CZU fire was finally contained on Sept. 22, more than a month after it began. In early October, as parts of the land still smoldered, open-space land managers said it could take years for the plant and animal communities to recover.

Land managers and cities took the wildfires as a wakeup call. The redwood forest is getting drier and the summers are longer with shorter rainy periods, Noelle Chambers Thurlow, vice president of conservation for Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), said in October. POST's more than 8,000-acre San Vicente Redwoods Preserve, which it co-owns with the Sempervirens Fund, was badly burned.

Peter Cowan, POST director of conservation science, said in a Nov. 9 blog post that the agency has been assessing the fire damage and the measures staff had taken prior to the wildfire to see what helped reduce the severity of the damage. Crews are repairing damaged roads and culverts to protect streams from sediment and are replacing scientific equipment to monitor the fire's impacts on wildlife populations.

The CZU fire prompted some residents and government leaders in areas where wildland and urban living interface to reassess their fire-management plans. The Town of Portola Valley convened an ad hoc fire preparedness committee in June, prior to the CZU fire, to make recommendations to the Town Council regarding communications and outreach, evacuation routes, home hardening and insurance and vegetation management.

Those plans were met with increasing urgency after the CZU fire. Woodside Fire Protection District, along with Portola Valley, vigorously insisted in a letter this fall to Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District that additional and immediate land-management of Midpen's preserves, particularly those near Windy Hill and The Sequoias senior community, be enacted. Midpen agreed to have more collaborative discussions, according to the fire district.

Midpen is also working on a longer-range wildfire resiliency plan. A public hearing review of the plan's draft Environmental Impact Report is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 27.

Palo Alto has also updated its website "Ready, Set, Go!" with more information on residential wildfire preparedness. In late August, the city developed a new webpage showing regional fire status and resources. This year the city developed an evacuation map for residents to download online and in conjunction with Santa Clara County Fire Department, the city is formalizing the Palo Alto evacuation zones in the Zonehaven software system, which shows areas under threat of or in evacuation.

City staff are communicating with neighborhood leaders in the foothills area to listen to their concerns and provide safety information and they have provided support for an emergency exit through Foothills Park through Gate 5 if it is needed, spokeswoman Meghan Horrigan-Taylor said.

In December 2019, the Utilities Department published their CPAU Wildfire Mitigation Plan, required by State Senate Bill 901, which seeks to minimize risks that the utility's distribution system might cause a fire ignition. That policy includes sending direct messages to customers when they anticipated the fire risk could potentially cause a power shutoff.

Flipping the City Council

The election gives Palo Alto's residentialists a clear advantage. How will they use it?

by Gennady Sheyner

In a year marked by dizzying change and existential anxiety, Palo Alto voters were in no mood for surprises when they went out to cast — or, more likely, mailed in — their ballots this fall.

Faced with a deep and diverse pool of 10 candidates who ranged from City Hall veterans looking for a fresh chance to serve to political newcomers with bold ideas, residents flocked to the familiar.

Both incumbents, Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka, were reelected to new four-year terms.

Greer Stone, a Gunn High history teacher and former member of the city's Human Relations Commission, also won a council seat, four years after falling short in his first bid.

But the biggest winner on Nov. 3 was Pat Burt, a former two-time mayor who spent nine years on the council before his last term ended in 2016. A longtime community leader who helped spearhead most of the city's major initiatives — from grade separations of the railway to the infrastructure plan to a proposed business tax — Burt will find himself in a very familiar position at the center of the council's political spectrum. His candidacy was endorsed by neither the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ) — a political group that endorsed candidates on the council's slow-growth "residentialist wing" — nor by the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, which favored the three "progressive" candidates who advocated for bold action on issues such as housing and police reform: Raven Malone, Steven Lee and Cari Templeton. While being a household name doesn't always guarantee a fresh election (as the experiences of Larry Moody in East Palo Alto and Lenny Seigel in Mountain View demonstrate), Burt cruised to victory and held a lead of nearly 1,000 votes over the second-place finisher, Kou, when the final tally was certified, finishing with 14,353 of Palo Altans' votes.

While the election results will not dramatically transform the council's roster — with only two of the seven seats being filled by new members — it will radically alter the political dynamics. For the past four years, the council's more pro-growth-leaning members have enjoyed a narrow majority — a power that they used to chip away at the city's stringent requirements for ground-floor retail; lower housing-impact fees for new developments; and remove the downtown limit on office development. All of these issues were decided by 4-3 votes (and, before 2018, by 5-4 votes).

Only two members of this four-member majority — Alison Cormack and Greg Tanaka — will return to the council next year. With Mayor Adrian Fine opting not to seek a fresh term and Councilwoman Liz Kniss terming out, the camp favoring slower city growth will now have a clear edge as Stone joins fellow PASZ-endorsed council members Kou, Vice Mayor Tom DuBois and Councilman Eric Filseth in a likely political alliance.

Burt, who has opposed many of the recent actions by the four-member majority (including recent proposals to scale back ground-floor protections for retail and to allow lame-duck council members to appoint next year's commissioners) and who has been aligned with Stone in their mutual distaste for state housing legislation such as Senate Bill 50, may turn the residentialists' slim 4-3 edge into a commanding 5-2 advantage.

On some issues, that may not matter. The council has been in virtual lockstep (with Kou often being the sole dissenter) when it comes to supporting policies that encourage more below-market-rate housing. They all voted, for example, to spend $10 million of public funds to support the 59-unit development known as Wilton Court, which targets low-income residents and adults with disability. The council has also united to pursue grade separation at rail crossings, cut the city budget, plan for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and pursue reforms in the Police Department, which include recent revisions to use-of-force policies.

In other areas, the residentialists are expected to flex their new power. This could mean more restrictions on new office space, higher development-impact fees to support affordable housing, stronger support for retaining laws that require ground-floor retail and increased skepticism toward proposals for market-rate housing.

As the year came to an end, the spirit of compromise that has guided the council's COVID-19 recovery gave way to a nasty political donnybrook over appointments to the Planning and Transportation Commission. Even as the council approved in November a new handbook specifying that appointments should occur in the spring, the four-member majority moved to vote on appointments in December, thus giving the lame-duck council members a chance to name advisers to the next council. All three council members in the minority then skipped the planning commission interviews, effectively preventing them from taking place (one member of the four-member majority also couldn't make it). The appointments will now take place in 2021.

With the year-ending squabble, Palo Alto is facing a question that can also extend to the nation as 2020 comes to an end. Will the political battle escalate next year, as power shifts from one faction to another? Or should their residents, having placed their faith in a moderate political veteran, expect a new era of cooperation and consensus?

The virus that changed everything

In an instant, a pandemic reshapes life on the Midpeninsula

by Linda Taaffe

In early March, local health officials began to sound the alarm on the novel coronavirus, a respiratory disease that had made its way into the Bay Area in January and was starting to spread within the community.

"It is important to recognize how difficult the times ahead may be and how you must now take assertive action to prepare for them," Dr. Scott Morrow, San Mateo County's chief health officer, warned residents on March 5 as Bay Area counties began rolling out the country's first legal directives limiting the size of social gatherings after the state reported its first-known coronavirus death the previous day.

By March 17, those words began to resonate when Bay Area public health officials shut down all nonessential businesses in six counties, including Santa Clara and San Mateo, and residents were ordered to stay at home for three weeks. A statewide shutdown followed three days later after virus projections showed that 56% of California's 40 million residents could become infected by the new coronavirus within two months.

Overnight, the Midpeninsula turned into a ghost town: On the first day of the shelter-in-place order, traffic dropped by 50% on Bay Area roads and Caltrain ridership dropped 90%. Within days, hotel occupancy rates in Palo Alto declined from 80% to below 20%, and by the end of the month, the leisure and hospitality industry reported 12,100 job losses in the north and south bay combined. Local tech companies told employees to work from home indefinitely, and Stanford University shifted classes online and asked its approximately 7,000 undergraduates to vacate the campus by March 20.

In the wake of the swift and uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, local medical centers, pharmaceutical companies and health officials accelerated the development of new health protocols, testing methods and treatments to stop this mysterious virus.

Stanford Health Care was among the first to roll out a diagnostic test approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that rapidly identified people with the illness within 12 to 24 hours. Stanford announced on March 5 that it would be using the new coronavirus test in-house to verify suspected cases of the illness at its hospitals after officials confirmed that the health center was treating a "few" patients who tested positive for the disease.

Palo Alto resident Monica Yeung-Arima, who returned home infected with the virus after traveling to Egypt, was among the earliest patients to be screened for COVID-19 with Stanford's new test kit. Doctors met her in the parking lot at Palo Alto Medical Foundation's urgent care clinic and whisked her into a room for an exam. Days later, she became one of the first people in the nation diagnosed with COVID-19 to be treated with the clinical-trial antiviral drug remdesivir that Foster City biopharmaceutical research company Gilead Sciences Inc. had developed to treat Ebola. After five days of treatment, she began to feel better and was released from the hospital.

By the end of March, Bay Area cities took up the mantle to test their first responders, health care workers and members of the public using technology from Menlo Park company Avellino. The testing drive-thrus launch with the city of Hayward. City and public health leaders said the testing sites were intended to take pressure off hospital emergency rooms and improve the region's ability to suppress new transmissions through isolation after testing. Stanford Health Care also set up testing tents in Menlo Park and on Stanford University campus in anticipation of more people coming down with the virus. By March 24, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom, 27,650 tests had been conducted statewide.

Despite pop-up testing sites, Santa Clara County hospitals continued to lag in testing, prompting Santa Clara County to issue a new order on June 10 requiring hospitals and clinics to test at least three categories of people: patients within their systems who have COVID-19 symptoms, have been exposed to COVID-19, or who need to be tested frequently because they are at higher risk of exposure through their work in health care or at a grocery store.

After cases continued to spike over the ensuing months, the state unveiled a new COVID-19 tracking system in August to create a more stringent process to determine when counties can move forward with indoor business operations. Santa Clara County found itself placed in the most restrictive tier, indicating widespread transmission.

Three months later, with vaccines on the horizon, Newsom ordered a statewide curfew prohibiting all nonessential work, movement and gathering between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

"This pandemic is like a high-speed train, and our projections tell us that we are on target to derail by the third week of December if we don't apply brakes right now with all our collective might," Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said while unveiling the new mandatory health directives.

As 2020 comes to an end, there still is no clear end to the crisis. Over the past nine months, the county's shelter-in-place order has been extended twice and reinstated as recently as December. Residents have become accustomed to exchanging tips on how to get tested for the coronavirus and how long it'll take to receive results. Restaurants, retailers and service providers continue to teeter back and forth between limited indoor operations and curbside and outdoor-only services to a full halt in some cases, and schools remain unclear on when campuses will be allowed to fully reopen.

As of Dec. 29, the county reported 67,423 cumulative COVID-19 cases and 673 deaths.

The first 5,850 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, which arrived in Santa Clara County at about 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 15, heralded what battle-weary public health leaders called "a glimmer of hope in the long fight" against COVID-19.

Read more of our year-in-review coverage:

Test your knowledge of Palo Alto happenings in 2020 with our news quiz

Letter from the editor: Navigating through this upside-down year

2020 rewind: A timeline of a year like no other

A surreal year: Photos capture historic events that shaped 2020

Tasty against all odds: Our nine most memorable meals of 2020

2020 vision: The year in film

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