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Tumultuous unforgettable pandemic year leads to new ideas, groups, representation

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - This masked, socially-distanced graduation for Centennial High School captures how the coronavirus pandemic changed almost everything in 2020.

For many 2020 will be a year to remember, perhaps infamously — marked by isolation, disaster, and social unrest.

COVID catastrophe

The biggest story of 2020 in East Multnomah County and worldwide was the spread of the deadly coronavirus and the restrictions put in place to tamp it down.

Schools were closed in March as COVID-19 gripped Oregon. Some businesses were shuttered or their operations restricted, which pushed people out of work and resulted in skyrocketing unemployment, business failures and sent the economy into a tailspin.

Families canceled or postponed weddings and funerals. Churches were all but empty. Arts, fundraising and other events were scrapped. A pandemic of loneliness and isolation gripped many people as social and holiday gatherings were discouraged.

For businesses, government agencies, clubs, churches and social encounters, online meetings and their glitchy hiccups became the norm. Grandparents watched their precious grandkids open their birthday and Christmas gifts via the internet.

East Multnomah County was hit hard by the pandemic. ZIP Codes East Multnomah County consistently had among the highest rates in the state for COVID-19 infections. The Amazon warehouse in Troutdale and Townsend Farms in Fairview reported dozens of cases.

As the year came to a close, more than 1,430 Oregonians had died from the virus and more than 110,000 had been infected.

The very end of 2020 brought a vaccine to tame the coronavirus, and the highest-risk people received the first shots. But experts warned it would be months, before everyone who wanted the vaccine could get one.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Not only were K-12 schools closed for much of 2020, but Mt. Hood Community College also closed its campus and taught most students remotely.

Schoolhouse blues

When Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools to close in mid-March as a way to slow the spread of the worrisome new virus, few parents or educators realized this would be the beginning of months of teaching and learning at home.

As the shut down dragged on and on, school districts scrambled to provide students with the most robust online education possible. Parents, many still working or working from home, struggled to help their students with virtual school and keep up with their jobs. Families lined up to get computer tablets at the schools and worked to get internet access.

"It takes a lot of partnership with the family side," Paul Coakley, superintendent of the 6,000-student Centennial School District said.

High school sports were canceled. Proms were scrapped.

Traditional graduations were so altered as to be unrecognizable. The class of 2020 was not able to gather in the big, celebratory career-capping events, as schools had to limit the number of people in an area and observe social distancing.

"It's so sad. When it was our last day of school, we didn't even know it was our last day of school," Barlow High School 2020 graduate Jordana Young said of the end of the 2020 school year.

The smallest scholars were robbed of that first day at "big kid" school in the fall.

Many parents became increasingly frustrated as their students grappled with distance learning. At the same time teachers, many of them high-risk or caring for someone high-risk, were worried about going back to the classroom. Strict pandemic metrics kept metro area schools closed through the end of the year.

Then, in late December, while schools were out on winter break and record numbers of cases of coronavirus and deaths were being recorded, Gov. Kate Brown, in a dramatic policy reversal, announced school districts could make their own decisions on reopening.

Brown abandoned the previously complicated and ever-changing reopening metrics and said school districts could decide for themselves when and how to reopen, as long as they followed safety guidelines.

The winter-break announcement left administrators, educators and parents with more questions than answers.

PMG FILE PHOTO - The 2020 wildfires blanketed the area in smoke and here gave Troutdale an otherworldly look.

Recovering from wildfires

This year Oregonians were rocked by a historic series of wildfires, causing the most destruction on record in the state. The fires claimed the lives of at least 11 people, burned more than one million acres of land, and consumed thousands of homes.

While East Multnomah County wasn't directly affected by the inferno, in early September local businesses and schools played host to hundreds of neighbors fleeing the flames that steadily crept toward Gresham from the south.

The one that hit closest to home was the Riverside Fire in Clackamas County, which burned more than 138,000 acres. The inferno began on Sept. 8 and wasn't completely extinguished until Dec. 3.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Troutdale was one of the communities in East County blanketed by smoke during the 2020 wildfires. Though Gresham never directly faced the infernos, thick smoke did descend over East County causing an eerie orange glow and perpetually dim lighting. The air quality was dangerous, reaching a peak on Sept. 12-13 when the air quality index was 324 and 342 respectively. Spending the day outside would have been the equivalent of inhaling 15 cigarettes.

The city did welcome many people living in Estacada and the surrounding Clackamas communities, who had to suddenly pack up their lives as evacuation orders forced them from their homes.

Many found themselves living out of cars in parking lots at places like Mt. Hood Community College, their vehicles crammed full of precious belongings. Mary Boyle, an Estacada resident, was one of those who found sanctuary in Gresham.

"This finally feels far enough away," Boyle said. "It might be smoky, but it's safe."

While devastating, the Riverside Fire didn't break spirits. Estacada residents like Paul Clement returned to his property after it was deemed safe to do so to survey the scene and extinguish hot spots and check on his neighbors' homes.

"I want to come back and do what I can do defend things," said Clement to the Estacada News. "Most people who have stayed have lived here a long time. There are a lot of logger and timber folks. They've been through this before."

If there was a silver lining to the summer wildfires, it is that Gresham emergency preparedness officials found a better sense of how to proceed during future disasters.

"This has been the biggest year in terms of things we didn't think about and what we need to do to be better," said Kelle Landavazo, Gresham emergency manager.

Community members were urged to maintain a base-level of preparedness, with a plan in place for loved ones and animals, where to go, and what to bring. Keeping a to-go bag packed with essentials — water, food, medication, and now, hand sanitizer and toilet paper thanks to 2020 — was also encouraged so residents would have basic supplies in hand should they have to leave quickly.

At the city level, the evacuation system is under refinement. Many residents found orders confusing, and it wasn't always clear who should be leaving especially as the fires crossed county lines. Communication lines are also being improved, to address situations where the city of Gresham isn't the lead agency.

"Our residents want to hear from us," Landavazo said. "We have to take that to heart and continue to work on being the lead voice for our residents."

PMG FILE PHOTO - Shemar Lenox, 21, led a series of marches calling for police reform through his newly formed group the Gresham Standup Movement.

Marching for change

In June, hundreds of community members took to the streets in downtown Gresham calling for changes in police procedures and an end to racism.

They were prompted by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of those tasked with protecting him. Four marches were organized by the Gresham Standup Movement. Their focus was on calling for police reform and equality. Local gatherings remained peaceful even as things in Portland turned violent, with nightly clashes between protestors and police in riot gear.

The peaceful demonstrations began in Gresham but quickly spread to Troutdale, Wood Village, and Sandy. Black organizers, many of them teenagers, asked for police body cameras to remain on during contact with the public; regular mental health checks for officers; independent reviews on the use of deadly force; training on racial profiling; the formation of a separate mental health team; and more.

"We have been sitting here for years but nothing has changed," said Shemar Lenox, a leader with the Gresham Standup Movement. "I am optimistic about Gresham, but we could be (marching) until the day we die."

A few weeks after Floyd's murder, the city of Gresham convened a gathering of Black community leaders. In attendance were Lenox and his co-leader Jaylen Welch, Gresham-Barlow Superintendent Katrise Perera, Paul Coakley, superintendent of the Centennital School District and Pastor Keith Jenkins with East Hill Church. They told elected officials about the turmoil and discrimination they have faced across the country and in Gresham. They spoke about profiling, hate, and the fear they have for their children.

"Until Black Lives Matter, you can't say All Lives Matter," Perera said. "In the Black household there is no such thing as an age of innocence."

During that gathering, former Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis promised those on the panel the city was dedicated to changing. He spoke about a "moral imperative" and that "actions (were) required." Those sentiments were echoed by other councilors in attendance. But then a few months later Bemis stepped down from his role, and half a year later, not much has changed.

That was the concern for Gresham Mayor-elect Travis Stovall, who watched the 8 minute and 46 second video that captured Floyd's death in horror. It was before the 47-year-old had decided to run for office, and he was just a Black community member "feeling that could have been anyone of us."

"Every morning I wake up as a Black man in America — knowing I have to earn the right to be considered a person who can contribute," Stovall told the Outlook in June.

That feeling is what partly prompted Stovall, and many others, to run for public office — a silver lining to the tragedy.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Virtual meetings and social gatherings, along with the glitches that went witn them, were a hallmark of 2020.

East County elections

While the contentious Presidential election drew the spotlight, it was a flurry of candidates vying for local positions that will have the largest impact on what the future holds for East Multnomah County.

This past year will be remembered as a time of participation and change in politics — massive voter turnout across the region; large numbers of new, diverse people vying for seats at the table; and incumbents being unseated by candidates with fresh ideas.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Supporters of President Donald Trump rallied in Gresham during the election. In Gresham, 52,034 ballots were cast in the November general election; 9,005 in Troutdale; 4,930 in Fairview; and 1,480 in Wood Village.

Gresham voters decided on three open council positions and a mayor's race. Sixteen people vied for the seats. Dina DiNucci claimed Position 1 by defeating incumbent Councilor Jerry Hinton, and political newcomer Sue Piazza fended off three other candidates to win Position 5.

Vincent Jones-Dixon kept Position 3, which he was appointed to in the summer to fill a vacancy left when Karylinn Echols shifted to mayor to close out the year. His appointment was historic — the first Black man to serve on Gresham Council.

"I will be championing the underrepresented," Jones-Dixon said. "I'm excited to get started."

PMG FILE PHOTO   - Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall Another historic moment occurred in the race for Gresham mayor. Travis Stovall won a five-person race that was so close against runner-up Councilor Eddy Morales it triggered an automatic recount. But Stovall eked out a 13 vote victory, becoming the first Black mayor of a major Portland-area city.

"It is such an honor to be Gresham's next mayor," Stovall said. "Together we will help make Gresham a stronger, more vibrant and equitable city."

In Troutdale, nine candidates threw their hats into the ring, with no uncontested races for three council positions and a new mayor. Alison Caswell, Glenn White, and Sandy Glantz all joined council, while Randy Lauer won the mayor's seat by 107 votes.

In Fairview, Steve Marker won the only contested race for Council Position 2, while in Wood Village, Jairo Rios-Campos and Brian Loy both joined council after besting challengers.

For those representing East County in Salem, voters chose 'Blue.' Democrats Zach Hudson and Ricki Ruiz both won State Representative seats for Districts 49 and 50 respectively, while Democrat Chris Gorsek successfully won a switch to serve as State Senator for District 25.

Voters also signaled a desire for a "flagship" library to be built in East County, greenlighting a $387 million bond that includes construction of a new library in Gresham equal in size and services to the Central Library in downtown Portland.

"Our libraries have always been a cornerstone of this community and this measure sets the stage for a brighter future," said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.

Regardless of where they serve, all the newly elected leaders in East County will face common challenges. Most pressing will be the continued recovery from the pandemic. Leaders will have to find housing options for all income levels; balance homeless services with neighborhood livability; fund parks; bolster education and so much more. In Gresham, everything is complicated by a dire budget deficit that will require significant cuts in employment and services throughout City Hall.

But one person believes the new leadership is well-suited to take on those challenges, and that a bright 2021 lies ahead. Outgoing Gresham Mayor Echols gave her stamp of approval to her successors.

"The (Gresham City) Council will be dynamic and new and wonderful things are coming," she said. "Solid leaders are stepping up."

Looking on the bright side of 2020

Although times were tough and people couldn't get together in their usual ways, there were bright spots and generous souls in the community stepped up to help out during a miserable time.

Despite all the hardships East Multnomah County faced, there have been community members across the region willing to step up and support those in need as never before.

The Gresham Helping Gresham page was formed on Facebook at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, offering a place to share resources, ideas, and kindness; residents across the region changed how they shop, focusing on staying close to home and uplifting small businesses and restaurants struggling with erratic closures mandated by the state; community members took it upon themselves to back firefighters and find homes for those displaced by wildfires; and more people than ever threw their hats into the political realm, vying to bring new ideas and representation to poisitions of leadership.

Folks donated money and goods to help those struggling with job loss, business closures and the economic slowdown due to the pandemic.

Schools went the extra mile to get food to hungry students and almost overnight revamp teaching so kids could get the best possible education despite the limitations of distance learning. Outdoor School even created kits to deliver to students who missed out on that experience.

Health care workers in nursing homes and hospitals worked long hours and still strived to ease the suffering and isolation of families separated by illness who could not be together because of the virus.

Gresham-based Tokola Properties gave the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce $50,000 to be used for grants for small businesses.

"I was dumbstruck," said Lynn Snodgrass, CEO of the chamber of the call she got from Dwight Unti, president of Tokola Properties pledging the money.

Churches and nonprofits in East County pulled together to provide extra food for hungry families. East Hill Church and St. Henry Catholic Church were among those that had special food box distributions during the rough year. SnowCap Community Charities allowed families to come twice a month for food, instead of just once per month.

A year-end fundraiser for SnowCap and My Father's House doubled its usual take and the two nonprofits will split more than $12,500.

Philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer, whose company owns Gresham Station, directed a donation of $20,000 to SnowCap for a special distribution of 1,000 food boxes at the shopping center at the end of December.

The needs this year were great, but the response of the community was mighty.


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