To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Those who endured what many called “the flaming Dumpster fire” of 2020 will be popping corks tonight to celebrate the end of one of the worst years of the 21st Century, if not the 20th.
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic dominated the news even at the end of the road in Homer. From the start of the pandemic in March when state and local officials declared an emergency, the effect of the novel coronavirus raged like a wildfire, not only causing people to get sick and die, but putting people out of jobs, shuttering businesses and nonprofits, and transforming our health care system. Schools moved education to the virtual sphere and parents discovered the challenge of being more active partners in learning. From the Fourth of July parade to the Nutcracker Ballet, the annual rituals of the year that bring communities together got canceled or offered in different, creative forms.
Elected officials had to be creative about helping their communities and putting federal relief funding to where it could be used best. Businesses came up with new models to keep their customers and staff safe while not going under. Nonprofits had to raise funds and offer their programs in different ways — and sometimes couldn’t.
Throughout the pandemic, the southern Kenai Peninsula showed resilience in coping. Face masks became fashion accessories as well as protection against spreading the virus. In Alaska, people reaffirmed their love of the outdoors as a way to get away from the stress of the pandemic as well as to gather safely and at a distance with friends.
And through it all, babies were born and honored citizens died, accidents happened, people made art and music, fish were caught, gardens grown, and all the happenings of life went on, including a few remarkable good things in a world that seemed dark.
Here are some of the stories of the past year:
Homer’s ban on certain kinds of thin, single-use plastic bags took effect the first day of 2020. City residents approved the ban in an October 2019 election. Starting Jan. 1, they were banned from being handed out to customers in city stores. Stores were still allowed to give out paper bags, and even thicker versions of plastic bags. Bags that were less than 2.5 mills thick are the kind that were banned.
The first baby born in Homer in 2020 was welcomed on Jan. 2. Ariyana Carlson arrived at 8 p.m. at 5 pounds, 9 ounces to parents Stephanie Cozadd-Pearson and Jasiah Carlson of Homer. Ariyana was slightly impatient to arrive, so much so that her mother didn’t even have time to get to the hospital. Medics from Homer Volunteer Fire Department ended up assisting with an at-home birth, and the family was brought up to the hospital afterward.
“I was waiting on the cab,” Cozadd-Pearson said, explaining that her contractions started speeding up and she realized they were out of time. “I was like, never mind the cab, call 911.”
Gary Thomas, a former editor and publisher of the Homer News, was killed when a water heater exploded in a home off East End Road near McNeil Canyon Elementary School. Thomas, a former general manager of KBBI Public Radio, was a volunteer firefighter with Homer Volunteer Fire Department and was a captain at Kachemak Emergency Services at the time of his death. A memorial for him filled the auditorium at Homer High School, where he was remembered for his dedication and service to his community.
The Homer City Council passed a resolution urging the Department of Fish and Game to retain a ban on personal watercraft in the critical habitat areas of Kachemak Bay and the Fox River Flats until it provided adequate responses to questions that had been directed to Fish and Game about its proposal to repeal the ban. Fish and Game had announced a proposal to remove the personal watercraft ban in December 2019, and had extended the public comment deadline by 15 days. In its second resolution, the city council asked for an analysis as to the city’s potential legal liability exposure if the ban were repealed.
The City of Homer began the process of sifting through applicants in its search for a new city manager to replace Katie Koester, who took a job with the City and Borough of Juneau.
The chief of Ninilchik Emergency Services was fired in a restructuring move made by the nonprofit’s board of directors, and quickly reinstated after a flurry of confusion and outcry among Ninilchik residents. The NES board of directors said they had been in the process of switching the department from a volunteer structure to an equal opportunity employer. In doing so, they dismissed the department’s one paid employee, David Bear, as well as volunteer Assistant Chief Grace Huhndorf, and said volunteers were going to be welcome to reapply as employees. After an emotionally charged town hall meeting in Ninilchik during which an attendee collapsed and had a medical episode, Bear and Huhndorf were reinstated and the board of directors resigned and were replaced with a new board.
Homer High School’s hockey team won a state championship title for the first time in program history. The team walked out of Fairbanks with the first place trophy from the ASAA/First National Cup Division II State Hockey Championships after defeating a fellow Railbelt Conference team, the Soldotna Stars. The previous year, the Mariners had made it to the championship game, but had lost to the Palmer Moose in overtime.
“It was pretty surreal,” said head coach Steve Nevak of the win.
Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer) introduced a bill to the Alaska Legislature that would prohibit abortion if a health care provider detected a fetal heartbeat in a pregnant woman. The bill, HB 302, was co-sponsored by 17 other members of the Legislature.
The family and friends of Anesha “Duffy” Murnane, the woman who went missing from Homer in October 2019, organized an awareness campaign in which they put out tins of small blue ribbons out around town. Blue was Murnane’s favorite color, and people were encouraged to take a ribbon and wear it in her honor.
Local and state entities began preparing for the inevitable arrival of the novel coronavirus to Alaska. As of March 5, Alaska did not have any confirmed cases yet, but the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services activated its Emergency Operations Center to get ready. South Peninsula Hospital was also preparing to activate its own Hospital Incident Command. Emergency operation plans were in the process of being reviewed and update by state and local partners, like the Homer Volunteer Fire Department and the city.
The City of Homer offered the job of city manager to Randy Robertson, a candidate they selected to replace outgoing City Manager Katie Koester. Robertson was city manager for Aberdeen, Maryland at the time and had previously been a city manager in Ashland, Kentucky, as well as in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee and Vestavia Hills, Alabama. Council member Joey Evensen brought up concerns about the circumstances of Robertson’s departure from two of his previous positions. As a result, Robertson ended up turning down the job offer, citing Evensen’s concerns, published in the Homer News, as “an obstacle I should not have to try to overcome at the very onset of my relationship with the Council and the community.”
For the first time ever, Homer welcomed an Alaska Superior Court judge to the Homer Courthouse. Senate Bill 41 gave both the Homer and Valdez District Courts — the last two courts in the state to not have a Superior Court judgeship — the ability to have a superior court as well. District courts can hear most lower-level cases, but only superior courts can hear felony cases. Judge Bride Seifert, most recently an assistant district attorney in Kotzebue, was welcomed to the community in a small reception at the Homer Courthouse.
As COVID-19 arrived in Alaska, local businesses and city buildings began to close to the public, including the Homer Public Library, the Homer United Methodist Church, the Anchor Point and Homer Senior Citizens Center, Bunnell Street Arts Center, the Kevin Bell Arena, and more. Local events, like the annual Winter King Salmon Tournament, were postponed or canceled. Also, Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a public health disaster emergency for the first time.
Alaska reported the first death of an Alaska resident tied to COVID-19 the week of March 23. The person was a resident of Southeast Alaska, but contracted the virus in Washington state and died on March 16 in a health care facility there.
Several Homer residents, including a recent graduate of Homer High School, got stranded in Peru when the country’s border closed on March 16 in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. More than 1,400 American citizens were stuck in limbo in the country, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office reported there were some 19 Alaskans still there as of March 22. Benna McCarron, 19, was unable to secure a flight home early from her trip, and was stuck in her hostel in Arequipa. Homer residents Ann Agosti-Hackett and Eric Knudtson, and Better Sweater owner Indira Mukambetova, were also waiting to get out of Peru.
The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Kenai on March 31. By that point, the first two residents of Homer to contract the disease had been reported by the state. The first was not in Homer at the time of their test result, and was traveling back to Alaska from out of state.
In preparation for potential future surges of the virus, South Peninsula Hospital set up an off site alternate care location at Christian Community Church. There, the hospital constructed patient bays complete with beds and equipment to serve up to 40 people. The alternate care site was set up in case the hospital went over capacity with COVID-19 patients. The idea was that, based on the severity of their cases, patients would be either admitted to the hospital for treatment or taken to the alternate site. The most severe cases would be flown to Anchorage.
Meanwhile, Homer residents mobilized and joined the effort to help with personal protective equipment shortages the state was facing at the time. Many individual and volunteer groups made masks and face coverings to donate to health care workers and the community at large.
The City of Homer got a new director of Public Works, but a familiar face. Jan Keiser joined the city as Public Works director, when the city separated it out as a separate job. Since the 1999, the job had been combined with that of city engineer. Keiser came from Washington State, but had worked here previously when she was Homer’s first ever city engineer from 1982-85.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced several changes aimed at reopened sectors of Alaska and its economy, including allowing restaurants to send alcohol with their to-go and delivery orders. Health care providers were also allowed to begin performing elective procedures again.
In addition to its alternate care site, South Peninsula Hospital also set up an alternate site to administer COVID-19 tests, in the event that the testing site at the main hospital campus became to overrun.
With state health mandates loosening, several restaurants, salons, retail stores and other businesses were allowed to reopen starting April 24, with certain restrictions. Many restaurants opened back up at limited capacity, while some waited for several more weeks. Hair salons required masks on their customers and most stores had hand sanitizer at the door.
An Anchor Point man died with COVID-19, the state reported. His death was tied to the virus, and he also had underlying health conditions. The man was in his 80s.
The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival announced it was going virtual for the first time ever, in order to continue on the annual tradition while taking safety precautions into consideration.
Seldovia Village Tribe conducted a village-wide testing day, in which tests were open to any member of the community. Paid for by the tribe, the tests were sent to Anchorage to be analyzed. In all, the tribe tested 168 people out of its year-round population of about 375. None of them came back positive.
The state further rolled back COVID-19 restrictions for Alaskans, allowing travel between communities within the state on the road system and via ferries once again. Travel at that time was still prohibited to and from communities off the road system.
Charter fishing operators asked the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to consider changing some regulations regarding fishing quotas in order help ease the strain the fishing sector was feeling during the pandemic. Charters expected much fewer customers and bookings from the Lower 48 over the summer, due to Alaska’s travel restrictions. Unable to replace that level of business with Alaskans, the charter sector asked the council to approve regulation changes to allow fishing on all days, to eliminate the size restrictions on halibut and to eliminate the annual limit. These proposals would only be in effect until travel restrictions were lifted by the state.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced that the state was moving into its third phase of reopening, which allowed businesses to operate at 100% capacity. That included libraries, museums, places of worship, and recreational and sport activities.
As a thank you to front-line health care workers, the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard units in Alaska conducted flyovers across the state with several different kinds of aircraft. Over Homer, residents were able to see two pairs of F-22 Raptors cruise across town.
The organizers of the annual Salmonfest announced that it would be canceled this year. Organizers were confident that the three-day festival that draws local and statewide acts, as well as musicians from out of state, would be able to continue in 2021.
Schools in Homer, Ninilchik, Nikolaevsk and all over the peninsula held modified graduation ceremonies. At Homer High. students were driven up to an outdoor stage, got out and received their diploma one at a time, and then got back in their family vehicles for a procession through town.
Local Homer residents took part in protests that aligned with national demonstrations in the wake of the death of a Minneapolis, Minnesota man, George Floyd, while in police custody in late May. Protests against police brutality erupted across the nation, and several small demonstrations were held in Homer as well.
The Homer Farmers Market kicked off a highly modified and pared down season, with fewer booths, more space, and none of the extra trappings like live music or food trucks. Face coverings were required for entry. The goal was to allow people a safe place to shop for local foods, with time set aside at the start of each market reserved for older or immune compromised shoppers.
Seven people tested positive for COVID-19 on the M/V Tustumena, which had to turn around from Dutch Harbor and head back to Homer. None of the people who tested positive were passengers. Once docked in Homer, the remaining crew and the passengers waited to be tested onboard by South Peninsula Hospital and Homer Public Health staff. Safe travel off the vessel and back home was arranged for the employees and passengers, and the ship was scheduled for a deep clean before heading back onto the water. While in port, the Tustumena flew the “yellow jack” flag or Lima signal flag indicating it was in quarantine.
Both Kelly Cooper and Rep. Sarah Vance kicked off their campaigns for election to District 31 of the Alaska House of Representatives. Vance was finishing up her first term in office, while Cooper was finishing up her most recent stint on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.
The Homer Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center announced that there would be no Fourth of July parade this year, citing safety concerns about having a large crowd.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed an ordinance that brought a hybrid in-person and vote-by-mail election system to the borough. It passed by a vote of 6-3. The ordinance came forth after the work of an elections stakeholders group, which was investigating ways to make borough elections better and more inclusive after a Homer man filed an Alaska Human Rights Commission complaint. The commission had found that the borough’s elections did not comply with the needs of the visually impaired.
The Homer City Council used $3 million in federal CARES Act funding to create the Small Business Economic Relief Grant Program, or SBERG, to provide up to $3,000 in assistance to qualifying small businesses affected by economic losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The City Manager Hiring Committee voted unanimously to recommend hiring the lone remaining candidate for the job: Rob Dumouchel of Eureka, California. The Homer City Council also voted to select him as city manager, and the city later signed off on a contract to hire Dumouchel.
A 14-foot skiff capsized near Gull Island at the mouth of China Poot Bay, killing one man, Justin Vanderlooven, 23, of Chugiak. Nearby mariners on commercial fishing and recreational boats rescued two other people from the skiff. Vanderlooven drowned when he got tangled in fishing gear under the boat.
A local resident organized an impromptu parade for the Fourth of July from West Homer Elementary School to the Homer Spit. The organizer, Matthew Mitchell, encouraged people to fly American flags from their cars and trucks. One parade participant, Chris Fischer, drove a van with a sign reading “Black Lives Matter” and flew an American flag, an Alaska flag, the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag and a pirate flag. Mitchell said he wanted the parade to be nonpolitical and asked Fischer to take down the Black Lives Matter sign, but conceded he didn’t have the authority to force him to do so. Another truck flew a Confederate battle flag and several trucks had Trump 2020 flags. A local classic car club also held its own parade that wound up following Mitchell’s parade.
South Peninsula Hospital added three negative-pressure patient rooms, increasing to 16 the number of beds for COVID-19 patients.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education approved its Smart Start mitigation plan setting policies for how schools would reopen — or close — during the pandemic. It set classes to start four days later, on Aug. 24. The plan also allowed families to decide where they want to learn in the upcoming school year, with options for in-person attendance, remote learning only, or home schooling.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit just after 10 p.m. on Tuesday, July 21, near Chignik in the Aleutian Chain triggered a tsunami warning for coastal areas of Alaska, including Kachemak Bay. Campers and others on the Homer Spit were advised to evacuate to higher ground. A few people sought refuge at Homer High School, the official evacuation site. The warning was lifted two hours later.
Compass, a residential addiction treatment center for men run by Set Free Alaska, opened at its location in a former tourist lodge near Mile 15 East End Road.
Another large event shut down by the pandemic, Salmonfest, carried on with a livestream event headlined by Grammy-winner Portugal. The Man.
Rep. Gary Knopp died July 31 in a mid-air collision of two planes near Soldotna that also killed six other people. Knopp was the pilot and sole occupant of one plane that collided with a plane piloted by Greg Bell of Soldotna and carrying a guide and four tourists from South Carolina. Knopp represented the Kenai-Soldotna area and was up for reelection in a contested Republican Party primary.
The Homer City Council created four new grant programs to bring financial relief to different sectors of the economy, including families, child care services, social services and nonprofit organizations.
A jury trial was delayed for Lee John Henry, the man charged with murdering Mark Matthews on July 28, 2013, on the Poopdeck Trail. Because of the pandemic, all in-person criminal and civil trials were suspended.
In the Alaska Primary Election held Aug. 18, incumbent Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, trailed in preliminary results on election day by 69 votes to challenger John Cox of Anchor Point. After absentee mail-in ballots came in, though, Stevens won the Republican Party nomination by 244 votes. Stevens faced Alaska Independence Party candidate Greg Madden in the general election.
The filing period ended for Kenai Peninsula Borough and City of Homer elections. In the race for the District 8 seat held by Borough Assembly President Kelly Cooper, who could not run again because of term limits, Lane Chesley turned out to be the only candidate after Paul Hueper failed to get his original copy of his declaration of candidacy on time to the borough clerk.
Students went back to school under new COVID-19 safety guidelines, including mask wearing for most students. Students adapted to guidelines like social distancing and wearing masks while practicing for the Homer Swing Choir.
The Homer City Attorney Michael Gatti advised the Homer City Council that as a first-class city, Homer does not have health powers and the legal authority to impose health mandates such as requiring residents to wear face coverings in public places.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported a new positive case of COVID-19 on Sept. 16 in Homer — the first case in several weeks since late August. The low case numbers led to a relaxation of visitor rules at South Peninsula Hospital so that patients not with COVID-19 could have up to two visitors provided they were family or in the patient’s social bubble.
A small boat burned in the Homer Harbor on Sept. 11. Firefighters stopped the fire before it spread to nearby boats.
Two airplanes crashed in separate incidents. One plane slid off the runway while landing on Sept. 11, right after firefighters were paged to a boat fire. In another incident on Sept. 12, a plane lost power while taking off and the pilot landed safely in the Mariner Park Lagoon. No one was injured in either incident.
The annual Burning Basket didn’t happen at Mariner Park, but organizer Mavis Muller and others made a small basket, “Reimagine,” and broadcast live on the web its burning.
The city council approved an ordinance authorizing the city manager to negotiate a lease at the Homer Airport with Float Shuttle, the company that bought the assets of Ravn Alaska and planned to offer regular air service. By year’s end a resurrected Ravn Air was flying.
As an example of how arts organizations have been adapting to the pandemic, Pier One Theatre did a radio theater production of Homer playwright Lindsay Schneider’s “Knife Skills” that was broadcast on KBBI AM 890 public radio.
A new retail cannabis store opened in Homer city limits, Cosmic Cannabis Company. The store is in a new building on East Bunnell Avenue near Two Sisters Bakery. It is the second retail marijuana store in Homer and the third on the southern Kenai Peninsula.
Under COVID-19 safety restrictions, the high school football season started on the Kenai Peninsula. Seating was limited for spectators, and fans had to wear face masks.
After being closed since mid-March, the Homer Theatre cautiously reopened. Alexandra “Ali” Sutton, daughter of theater owners Lynette and Jamie Sutton, took over running the theater from the strategy and operations end, with Colleen Carroll continuing as manager.
The Homer Police Department moved into its new building on Grubstake Avenue. The $7.5 million dollar facility includes a better jail facility with separated cell areas for women and juveniles, a secure visitation area, better evidence storage, and other improvements.
In city and borough elections, city voters reelected Homer Mayor Ken Castner and council members Rachel Lord and Caroline Venuti. Council member Donna Aderhold had challenged Castner and political newcomers George Hall and Raymond Walker had sought election to the council. Voters also reelected Kenai Peninsual Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce and repealed an ordinance establishing a hybrid vote-by-mail system. In the Anchor Point and Ninilchik area, voters approved creating a new fire and emergency services area, the Western Emergency Service Area, that combines the Anchor Point and Ninilchik fire and emergency services areas.
South Peninsula Hospital moved its COVID-19 testing site to the lower level of the SPH Specialty Clinic on Bartlett Street. At the new site, patients administer their own nasal swabs under the direction and observation of health care workers.
The Homer High School Mariner football team was quarantined after a member of the program tested positive for COVID-19. Two members of the coaching staff tested positive for the virus within a few days of each other.
Alaska State Troopers charged a Homer woman, Sarah Dayan, 35, with murder in the death of Keith Huss, 57, of Soldotna, after he was found dead in a pull out near Mile 68.5 Seward Highway in Turnagain Pass. Dayan was caught and arrested in Seward.
A year after Anesha “Duffy” Murnane, then 38, went missing in Homer, the search continued. A former Homer Police lieutenant with experience in Lower 48 missing persons cases, Matthew Haney, continued to work the case.
Homer went through another tsunami warning and evacuation on Oct. 19 after a magnitude 7.5 quake hit near Sand Point on the Alaska Peninsula. The warning system was confusing because the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management determined Homer and Kachemak Bay were not threatened by a tsunami and issued an all-clear notice through its text-alert system. Shortly after that, the National Weather Service made another tsunami warning announcement that got pushed through the tsunami warning towers.
After COVID-19 cases on the southern peninsula began to rise more dramatically, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District raised the risk level for southern peninsula schools to high, pushing schools to 100% remote learning. Under the district’s plan, the southern peninsula went into high-risk after cases were above 20 over a 14-day period.
Nanwalek teacher Jim Reinseth, 50, died in a house fire on Oct. 13 in the lower Cook Inlet community. Reinseth had won recognition for his teaching, including the Golden Apple Award in 2014.
“Watching Jim Reinseth in action is like observing a great conductor in a symphony,” wrote educational consultant Deb Evensen in 2014 of his work.
The city council extended its disaster emergency declaration for the pandemic to Dec. 31.
In state elections, on election night incumbents Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, were ahead in early vote counting. More than 110,000 absentee ballots had been received but not counted. In District 31, almost 4,500 absentee ballots remained to be counted. Vance had 3,711 votes to Cooper’s 1,571 votes. When absentee ballots were counted, Cooper cut into Vance’s margin of victory, but not enough to win. Vance had 6,468 votes and Cooper had 5,434.
Former hospital CEO Bob Letson died of COVID-19 on Nov. 8 in Columbia, South Carolina. Letson was CEO for 10 years at South Peninsula Hospital before he retired in June 2018. He and his wife Cristal moved to the Lower 48 to be closer to family.
As COVID-19 activity increased statewide at the end of November, South Peninsula Hospital reported it had five patients with or suspected to have COVID-19 over a two-week period from Nov. 9. During that same period the hospital emergency room had 10 patients visit for COVID-19 related issues.
After suspending the single-use plastic bag ban because of COVID-19 safety concerns raised by retailers, the city council reinstated the ban starting on Jan. 5.
The Alaska Board of Pharmacy fined Scott’s Family Pharmacy $3,750 for actions or inactions it took related to a prescription drug transaction that led to felony drug charges against a Homer woman. A jury found the woman not guilty in that case.
President Donald Trump’s administration denied a permit to Pebble Mine to operate, effectively killing the project.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted 10-0 with one abstention to close commercial salmon fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone in a portion of Cook Inlet that is in federal waters. The Cook Inlet EEZ had been removed from the council’s Fishery Management Plan in 2012, but a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals required the council to include the zone in its management plan by the end of 2020.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the repeal of a ban on personal watercraft in the Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Areas. The ban remained in effect for Kachemak Bay State Park and Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park, but that could change under a draft management plan under revision.
Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, and several other Alaska legislators wrote Gov. Mike Dunleavy a letter urging the state to join a lawsuit filed by the Texas attorney general challenging presidential election results in four battleground states. Dunleavy later filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the Texas case. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Texas suit and the Electoral College met and voted, affirming former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris’ victory
“It’s about our election integrity moving forward and making sure every vote is counted,” Vance said.
The first batch of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Homer. Vaccines were first offered to front-line health care workers and long-term care residents. Receiving the first vaccine was family practice physician Christina Tuomi, D.O., and Long Term Care resident Larry Young. The hospital got 180 doses in its first batch.
A Homer water taxi captain, Curtis Jackson, evoked the spirit of the 1925 Nome Serum Run when he took in rough seas four SVT Health and Wellness health care workers and a cooler of COVID-19 vaccines to Jakolof Bay and a road connection to Seldovia. One of the passengers called him “Capt. Balto,” after the lead dog of the team that delivered diphtheria serum to Nome.