It was a year most of us will be glad to forget. But we won’t. Though it started like so many others, no one could have anticipated how 2020 would be turned upside down by one tiny thing: the novel coronavirus. Personally, we’ve all been changed by it. As a country, we’ve been ravaged by it. This was a year of such significant loss and tragedy, it’s hard to think of anything else. Still, in our community, there was more to 2020 than COVID-19. This issue, the Gabber takes a look back at some of the highlights from each month of our coverage. Yes, there’s plenty of virus news, but there was also good news – and a lot of hope for the future.
The year started with a lot of promise, didn’t it? We all had plans – for travel, concerts, events! – and at least some of us were looking forward to an election year. In the pages of the Gabber in January, there was the usual excitement for upcoming art shows, markets and early spring festivals. Gulfport Little League was also back, as council approved a three-year lease with the organization, and StoryCorps came to the Gulfport Library to capture personal histories.
Gulfport’s election season began in earnest. There was some controversy over whether or not there would be a candidate forum (there was), with April Thanos and incumbent Dan Liedtke vying for the Ward 1 council seat. For the second time, Ward 3 Councilmember Paul Ray won his seat by default.
St. Pete Beach launched a “micro-mobility” car service, Freebee, and a mural bandit – still on the loose – somehow managed to alter Keith Stillwagon’s mural over the Gulfport Garage. On January 18, more than 600 people participated in a Women’s March in Gulfport, in solidarity with marches across the country.
Events! The 11th annual So Classic Car Show, Gulfport Library’s ReadOut and Boyd Hill’s RaptorFest kicked off a month of events, including a Mardi Gras, the Fine Arts Festival, Get Rescued and Peace, Love & Pride in Gulfport, St. Pete Beach’s Seafood & Music Festival and loads more.
Gulfport’s four-hour mooring time limit at the Casino dock sparked controversy at council, and Mayor Sam Henderson sent a letter to Tallahassee imploring elected officials to affect “meaningful change” to laws that impact climate change.
On the water, law enforcement identified the man found dead near a dinghy in Boca Ciega Bay – a recovery effort that involved Gulfport’s fire and police departments – and a winter storm stranded three boats in the bay.
Gulfport Votes 100% intensified its push for voter turnout, and the city voted on its first Pet Mayor, the Peninsula Inn’s resident sweetheart, Coco. Oh, and February got an extra day this year.
In Gulfport, challenger April Thanos defeated Dan Liedtke on March 17 to secure the Ward 1 council seat.
Gulfport City Council looked into a fundraising proposal to get $10.3 million for an upgraded Senior Center, and St. Pete Beach began major sewer infrastructure improvements.
With the gorgeous weather, events continued apace – with Gulfport’s Flamingo Tour of Homes and Pass-a-Grille’s Island Festival headlining – but there was a dark cloud on the horizon.
In the Gabs, the Gabber asked, “What are your thoughts about the coronavirus?” Feelings were mixed – from “serious” to “overblown” – but public opinion couldn’t keep the virus at bay.
By the end of the month, local municipalities were weighing their options in response to a pandemic that was already ravaging other countries. Most events were canceled and county authorities enacted “stay-at-home” orders on March 25.
The March 19 issue of the Gabber was a meager one, with COVID-19 fears and impending shutdowns cutting our advertising by more than half. The front page informed readers that we “would do our best to keep bringing you this community resource,” but that our revenue came solely from advertising dollars.
The March 26 issue of the Gabber was the very last printed by Ken and Deb Reichart, who owned the paper for nearly three decades.
April – June
For 14 weeks, the Gabber Newspaper went dark. Without advertising revenue, we could no longer print the paper, or afford an online presence. But the Gabber was far from the only business affected. In a time of crisis and confusion, business owners sought solutions. While some succumbed, many stayed afloat by pivoting, plundering their savings, or through the mercy of loans and the kindness of the community. All of those things would be necessary to bring the Gabber back.
In May, former Gabber reporter and columnist Cathy Salustri approached Ken and Deb Reichart about the paper. As a trio, they re-launched the Gabber as a digital presence, and began fundraising and selling pre-paid advertising gift cards to resume paying a small staff, and contributors who worked for free until the Gabber regained its footing.
The Gabber published stories online – including multimedia coverage of local Black Lives Matter protests and ongoing COVID news and resources, as well as Gulfport’s virtual council meetings. We’d missed a bit in the weeks the Gabber was dark, including big changes to local businesses, and the community response to COVID, so we worked to tell those stories.
On June 22, the Lopers became the fourth owners of the Gabber Newspaper. The new Gabber Team resumed print publication on July 9.
The Gabber was back in print, but the world was not as we left it in March. There were no events to report on, and our hyper-local world was in a holding pattern. We had mask mandates and new shut-down orders, strange seed packages and a coin shortage. We also faced an unprecedented challenge reopening Pinellas County schools in a pandemic.
Still, local politics stops for no one, and we reported on the new Gulfport Sustainability Committee, food truck ordinances and the city budget. And, in the wake of one of the most painful local event cancellations of the year, the Gabber published a retrospective on GeckoFest.
The Gabber relaunch also brought more robust local arts coverage, in all its forms, as well as highlights on food, history and the environment. Also in August, we began reporting on down-ballot elections – from the county commission to tax collector – in an effort to better inform readers on their decisions come November.
In September, Gulfport lost a living legend, Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee. The revered blues musician, who had contracted COVID-19 but was thought to be recovered, left a lasting mark on blues, and the community that he called home.
Budget talks heated up on Gulfport Council and, for the ninth year, the millage rate remained unchanged.
And there was a glimmer of hope in the community. The Gulfport Merchants Chamber’s Tuesday market returned at the end of the month – with extensive COVID precautions – proving that there might just be light at the end of the tunnel in our “new normal.” We also brought news that the GMC had reworked and rebranded the first and third Saturday ArtWalks in a welcome, and safe, event line up.
As fall came, folks started to feel that maybe we’d gotten the hang on this pandemic thing. The City of Gulfport and the GMC announced more events – socially distanced and masked up – including a candy chute trail, outdoor pumpkin decorating and pet costume contests for Halloween.
Gulfport Council talked about the viability of electric vehicles for the city and the police department, and the Gabber stepped up down-ballot elections coverage with Q&As for state senators and representatives.
That month, artist Kiersty Long completed a mural of John Prine, an homage to the incomparable singer/songwriter/musician who lived and played in Gulfport for many years. John Prine passed away in April due to complications from COVID-19.
Who’d have thought the much-anticipated election would be the second biggest local news story in November?
After Halloween in Florida, we generally think we’re in the clear as far as hurricanes go – 2020 proved to be a notable exception. Eta made landfall north of the Tampa Bay area, causing the worst flooding Pinellas has seen in many decades, and pushing myriad boats ashore in Gulfport.
As communities dealt with the damage – and reconciled the highs and lows of a vitriolic election season – we also marked a statue of Elder Jordan in St. Petersburg, the (slightly delayed) reopening of Williams Pier in Gulfport, and moments of gratitude in the face of very different holiday season.
No matter what else is going on, December is a season to come together. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice – whatever your tradition, it’s a month of charity and hope. Locally, we looked at the many different ways to give – to your loved ones and to your community – as well as groups who are already making a difference in the holiday season.
Gulfport also geared up for yet another election – this one hyper-local – with five candidates throwing their hats in the ring for Wards 2 and 4, to be decided in March.
On the COVID front, we worked to sort out the message from the messenger, reporting on mask mandate enforcement from the Sheriff’s Office. And Santa Claus did still came to town, socially distanced, by land and by sea.