It was the kind of year that we read about in history books: Momentous. Traumatic. World-changing. Exhausting.
From the worst pandemic in a century to a historic election, devastating wildfires, a civil rights reckoning and economic calamity, the biggest stories of 2020 have been the kinds of upheavals that defined prior years — like 1865, 1918, 1932 or 1968 — for generations to come. But rarely if ever have so many earth-shaking sagas unfolded at the same time.
“We can find parallels for each one of these things in past years,” said Bruce Cain, a professor of political science and director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. “But the combination of all of them hitting at once makes this year a super event.”
In the Bay Area, like California and the rest of the nation, 2020 won’t expire and fade into the background after the calendar shifts. The year’s top stories will continue to reverberate, evolve and shape 2021. They are:
1) The pandemic
The first cases in the Bay Area appeared in early February, when a man who had traveled to Wuhan, China, returned home to Santa Clara County with the disease, visited doctors and isolated himself at home. People began dying by March. Schools shuttered classrooms. On March 16, realizing the potential for catastrophe, seven Bay Area counties announced sweeping shelter-in-place restrictions, the first in the United States. “This is going to go on for quite some time,” said Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County’s health officer. Autopsies later showed the first Bay Area death was Feb. 6, meaning the coronavirus had quietly spread for at least six weeks due to the lack of testing and awareness before health restrictions were put in place.
Nine months later, the COVID-19 virus has killed more than 315,000 Americans, more than World War II. At least 1.75 million Californians have been infected — 1 in every 23 people. And 22,150 Californians have died, including more than 1,500 in the past week, the equivalent death toll of three Loma Prieta earthquakes every day. Vaccines began to arrive last week. Doctors, nurses and nursing home patients will get them first. By late spring or early summer, experts say, there should be enough doses for everyone, offering hope for a return to some normalcy if at least 70% of the population is vaccinated.
“The key will be getting people to take them,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist with UCSF.
“This is a miracle to have a vaccine so fast. It’s incredible,” he said. “This is the moonshot of molecular biology. When the pandemic came we were able to respond. But it’s going to take a long time for this to be in our rearview mirror. We are going to be paying for this for quite a while.”
2) Massive wildfires
Wildfires are part of California’s landscape. But this year, freak August lightning storms, combined with a dry winter, dead trees from the 2012-2017 drought, overgrown forests and heat waves made worse by climate change combined for disaster. More than 4.1 million acres burned statewide — twice the previous record — sending choking smoke into the Bay Area for weeks. More than 10,000 structures and 33 lives were lost. Among the worst was the CZU Lighting fire in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, which burned 97% of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, destroying the historic visitor center, campgrounds and other buildings, as it also killed one person and destroyed 1,491 structures.
Amazingly, five of the six largest fires in recorded California history have all burned in the past four months.
The year ahead? Federal and state officials signed an agreement to double the rate of tree and brush thinning. But it will take years to make a serious dent. This winter is off to a slow start with rainfall at only 30% of normal. And 2020 is likely to go down as the hottest year in recorded history. In short: In years without major winter rains, 2020 may well be the new reality for 2021 and beyond.
3) Kamala Harris’ election
The 56-year-old Oakland native made history on Nov. 3, becoming not only the first woman, but the first African-American, to win the vice presidency. When President-elect Joe Biden speaks to Congress, both people sitting directly behind him will be Bay Area women: Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. Since President-elect Joe Biden is 78, Harris is in a key position to become the first woman president if he only serves one term or less.
But what’s still to play out in 2021 are which issues she will champion, and how she will balance the activist left of the Democratic party with its moderate middle, following an election where suburban votes played a key role in delivering the White House to the Democrats.
“Keeping the coalition together, it can be done,” Cain said. “Nancy Pelosi has done it in the House. Whether Joe and Kamala can do it, time will tell.”
4) Black Lives Matter
The death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis after police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes sparked protests around the nation, including the Bay Area. Thousands of demonstrators in Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco marched against police brutality. The protests began peacefully but ended with some people setting fires, breaking windows and looting stores as police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Polls showed a majority of Californians and Americans were sympathetic to police reforms. State lawmakers banned chokeholds and required the state attorney general to investigate when police kill unarmed civilians. But broader reforms to decertify officers who break the law or to release more police personnel records failed in Sacramento amid opposition from powerful police unions and disorder from COVID-19. The rallying cry of some activists to “defund the police” backfired politically, Biden said, helping Republicans win House races in suburban areas, a sentiment even liberal Oakland Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee said was “absolutely correct.”
In 2021, Democrats are likely to push for more reforms in Bay Area cities and the state Capitol, this time with different framing.
5) Economic upheaval
COVID devastated the economy. California’s unemployment rate soared to 16.4% by April and May, an all-time high since modern records began in 1976. More than 4 million Californians lost jobs in the first two months of the pandemic. Nationally, 20 million lost jobs in April, the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. In the Bay Area, 1 of 7 people was short on food, causing massive lines at food banks. Although the economy has slowly improved over the fall, with the unemployment rate at 9.3% in October, the pandemic widened the gap between white-collar workers who could work at home and blue-collar workers who could not.
Economists say the vaccine could lead to a sharp rebound in 2021. But many businesses in particularly hard-hit industries, like restaurants, bars, hotels, movie theaters and airlines, may be gone for good.
6) Tech companies leave the Bay Area
Cracks appeared in the Silicon Valley mystique this year. Oracle announced it was moving its headquarters from Redwood City to Austin. HP Enterprise said it would move to Houston. More traditional companies like Charles Schwab, McKesson, Bechtel and Parsons Engineering also have said goodbye.
The Bay Area’s high housing prices, long commutes and social problems like growing homeless encampments caused some leaders to look for greener pastures, including Denver, Seattle, Nashville and Boise, Idaho. High taxes and regulations also are a factor, said Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business group.
“These places are cheaper to live, cheaper to establish a business,” he said. “They welcome you with open arms. We need to become more like that.”
That said, innovation isn’t dead here. California generated more patents than any other state in 2020 — nearly four times as many as the next state, Texas. The Bay Area is still home to many of America’s largest Fortune 500 companies, including Apple, Google, Chevron, Wells Fargo, Intel, Facebook, HP, Netflix, PayPal, Salesforce, the Gap, Applied Materials, Adobe, eBay and Levi Strauss. And it remains the nation’s center of venture capital.
But if the trend continues in 2021 that the Golden Goose is threatened, look for more business-friendly measures, experts say.
“The strategy used to be ‘I have to go to Silicon Valley to be successful,’” Wunderman said. “A lot of people in the future, maybe they don’t have to come here. We’re experiencing the world from our laptops and phones now. There’s change taking place. We’ll see.”
7) BART reaches Silicon Valley
After more than 30 years of planning and dreaming, on June 12, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system finally came to Santa Clara County. BART stations opened in Milpitas and San Jose’s Berryessa neighborhoods as part of a $2.3 billion project to extend BART south from Fremont into the Bay Area’s most populous county. But COVID left the gleaming stations nearly empty, with ridership at only 5% of expected levels by December.
Big plans are on the drawing board for a $6 billion BART extension through downtown San Jose to Santa Clara. That is scheduled to open by 2030. A major infrastructure bill from the Biden-Harris administration next year could provide a new infusion of cash to help speed it down the tracks.
8) The French Laundry
It’s what political operatives call “bad optics.” After imposing rules to shut down much of society — rules that have left California with a lower per capita rate of COVID than most other states — Gov. Gavin Newsom was photographed dining at the ultra-exclusive French Laundry restaurant in Napa on Nov. 6. With millions out of work and staying home, Newsom joined lobbyists at the $300+ per person locale. He apologized, calling it “a bad mistake.” But the event reinforced the image of elite leaders hypocritically ignoring their own rules and gave momentum to an effort to recall the first-term governor, led by donations from Southern California Republicans.
Will Newsom go the way of Gray Davis and be booted out of office in 2021? Not likely. Democrats outnumber Republicans far more in California now than when Davis was recalled in 2003. And there isn’t a Republican challenger with the star power or name recognition of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the dinner, and Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, will be a big part of his legacy in 2021 and beyond, particularly if he hopes to run for president. Bottom line: The faster he gets vaccines to people next year, the faster he can put it in the rearview mirror.
9) 49ers: From Super Bowl to cellar
They came so close. Up 20-10 in the fourth quarter with 8:53 left to play, it looked like the 49ers were going to win their sixth Super Bowl and their first in 25 years. But the Kansas City Chiefs, led by dynamic quarterback Patrick Mahomes, had other ideas. The Chiefs scored on three straight possessions, winning 31-20. The Niners had hoped to repeat. But they suffered more significant injuries than any team in the NFL, and sit at the bottom of the NFC West.
Next year? With some of their best players, including defensive end Nick Bosa and tight end George Kittle, coming back from injury, many analysts expect them to contend again.
10) Breakup of Big Tech?
For years, the chorus of concerns about Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple has been growing. They are too big, critics say. They undercut democracy by spreading misinformation about everything from elections to vaccines. They are biased in favor of liberals. Or conservatives. They are monopolies that have wrecked retail stores nationwide. This year, the screws tightened. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Sundar Pichai of Google were hauled in front of Congress to answer tough questions from lawmakers of both parties.
In October, the Justice Department filed an anti-trust suit against Google, challenging its dominance of online search and advertising. This month, the Federal Trade Commission and 40 states sued Facebook, accusing it of running an illegal monopoly. Will the Biden administration break them up? Or will the lobbying power and influence of some of the world’s richest companies prevail?
We’ll find out in 2021.