Worldwide, 2020 was a year that seems likely to feature prominently in the history books of the future, and Umatilla and Morrow counties were not immune to the flood of news. The following is a look back on a turbulent year for Hermiston and surrounding communities:
In January, blissfully unaware of coming events, Hermiston-area residents went about the community’s usual January activities, including the Resolution Run, Dancing with Your Hermiston Stars, Beach & Beef and the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Walk.
During their first meeting of the new year, the Hermiston City Council discussed whether to spend more than $100,000 to repair City Hall, which in late December 2019 had experienced damage from a fire in the HVAC system, or move up the timeline on a new City Hall the council had been hoping to consider in another two or three years.
Alice and Gay Newman were named the 2020 grand marshals of the Umatilla County Fair, as the Fair Appreciation Dinner on Jan. 25 teased plans for the fair parade, concerts and other events that would never end up taking place.
The Hermiston Herald published its first COVID-19 story on Feb. 5, titled “Local health care providers keeping up to date on coronavirus.” The first sentence of the article, in what would soon turn out to be wildly misplaced optimism, declared that “the Wuhan strain of the coronavirus may not ever spread to Umatilla County, but health officials are prepared for it anyway.” At the time, 11 cases of the virus had been confirmed in the United States, all from travelers returning from China.
On Feb. 6, a once-in-a-century flood swept through Umatilla County. Water from the Umatilla River poured into neighborhoods in Pendleton, flooded homes in Echo, closed down businesses, washed away roads and bridges on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, swept across Interstate 84 near Stanfield, destroyed much of Riverfront Park in Hermiston, damaged Umatilla School District’s sports complex and took the life of Janet Conley, who died on her ranch.
A flood of support soon followed the flood of water, as people banded together to provide shelter and supplies for those who had been displaced and help clear away debris.
The Hermiston Chamber of Commerce had its 50th annual Distinguished Citizens Awards banquet on Feb. 12, honoring Lou Lyons as Man of the Year and Cindy Meyers as Woman of the Year.
On Feb. 24, the Hermiston City Council voted to build a new City Hall, using about $9 million to renovate the basement of the Hermiston Public Library and then tear down the fire-damaged City Hall and build a much larger three-story building in its place. The council also noted that a private business that had expressed interest in purchasing the Hermiston Community Center was no longer planning to present an offer for the city to consider.
Also on Feb. 24, Republican senators, including Sen. Bill Hansell, brought the work of the 2020 Legislative Session to a halt as they walked out and fled the state to prevent a vote on a cap-and-trade bill.
In its March 4 edition, the Hermiston Herald reported Umatilla County’s first case of COVID-19. According to the article, the case was confirmed by an Oregon Health Authority lab on March 2 and was awaiting a second confirmation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The patient was hospitalized in Walla Walla, Washington, and while the health department did not release his city of residence, it stated he had attended a youth basketball game in Weston and worked at Wildhorse Resort & Casino shortly before getting sick. He had not traveled recently, indicating he had picked up virus from another undetected case locally.
Hours after the case was reported, local stores were wiped out of hand sanitizer, soap, sanitizing wipes and other cleaning supplies. Within two weeks, many other shelves of the grocery store would also be bare, and toilet paper would become nearly impossible to find for sale in town.
At the end of the school day on March 13, schools closed down by order of Gov. Kate Brown. At the time, the order was considered a temporary, two-week measure to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the state, and Hermiston’s school board had a lengthy debate about whether the shutdown should count as the district’s spring break, which was originally scheduled for the week after the shutdown.
The point quickly became moot as the shutdown was extended to April 28 hours after the board made its decision, and most students in Oregon have not set foot in a classroom since.
On March 16, Brown ordered all restaurants and bars to close down for in-person dining for four weeks, an order that would later be extended. Gatherings of more than 25 people were prohibited, and everyone was urged to stay home other than trips to the grocery store, doctor’s office or other necessities.
Event cancelation announcements flooded the paper, the Hermiston City Council announced it would start livestreaming its meetings online to discourage in-person attendance, hospitals halted elective procedures and local quilters began sewing masks for health care providers to help with the national personal protective equipment shortage.
On March 25, EO Media Group announced 47 layoffs in light of plunging advertising revenues related to the pandemic, including cutting four of the Hermiston Herald’s seven positions and four more employees at the East Oregonian. Remaining staff were notified they would be receiving a 10% pay cut (that cut was later postponed when the company received a two-month Paycheck Protection Program loan).
In non-COVID news, police began investigating the death of Jordan Crandall, who was found deceased of a gunshot wound on Alpine Drive outside of Hermiston on March 18, as a homicide.
Rogers Toyota also broke ground on a new building on North Highway 395.
In early April, developments on the COVID-19 front continued to unfold with dizzying speed, as the Oregon Department of Education declared students would “probably” not be returning to the classroom for the rest of the school year and schools should start providing online or paper learning materials under Distance Learning for All. On April 8, the state officially changed “probably” to “definitely.”
The Herald examined the ways the pandemic was shaping all aspects of life in 2020, from law enforcement to weddings. On April 8, the paper reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending everyone wear masks while out in public to protect themselves.
Farmers, facing a sudden decrease in demand for crops like potatoes due to restaurants closures, made large donations to local food banks, and hundreds of Hermiston residents lined up for a free giveaway of potatoes and onions from AgriNorthwest and River Point Farms.
A group of Hermiston residents formed a nonprofit called Stepping Stones, and in April asked the Hermiston City Council to consider providing support for a homeless shelter the group hoped to build by placing small huts behind the Agape House. Hermiston City Councilor John Kirwan resigned at the same meeting, citing a career change, and was later replaced by David McCarthy.
Airport Road resident Chris Waine, backed by Umatilla County commissioner candidate HollyJo Beers and others, got into a standoff with county employees over a planned expansion of Airport Road. The project would take up a disputed portion of property Waine says belongs to him and the county states belongs to the county. Waine parked a collection of vehicles along the disputed right-of-way as construction crews attempted to work on the road, but the work eventually continued anyway.
In May, the Herald redesigned the paper and made significant changes to its business model, switching from a paid subscription to free distribution to roughly 14,000 homes in west Umatilla County and north Morrow County.
Umatilla County reported its first death of a COVID-19 patient on May 1, a 76-year-old female who died April 30 at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, Washington.
The city of Umatilla said goodbye to its last strip club as Riverside Sports Bar announced it would be transitioning into a family-friendly bistro known as The Bridge.
On May 15, restaurants, hair salons and other “nonessential” businesses were given the go-ahead to reopen for the first time since mid-March.
The long-awaited irrigation project, known as the West Project, was completed after decades of work by area farmers and political leaders to secure the ability to use more Columbia River water for irrigation, generating millions of dollars in additional revenue for the economy.
Farm-City Pro Rodeo announced the cancelation of the 2020 rodeo, and the Umatilla County Fair announced most events connected to the fair would be canceled, with some opportunity for students to still show their animals without an audience.
The primary election resulted in HollyJo Beers of Milton-Freewater and Dan Dorran of Hermiston advancing into a two-way runoff in November for a seat on the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners.
On May 30, more than 100 people gathered downtown for the Hermiston Freedom Rally, which featured far-right speakers, such as Patriot Prayer’s Joey Gibson, and was held in protest of COVID-19 restrictions. At the same time, health care workers and other essential workers drove through town with banners on their vehicles in support of the restrictions, calling themselves the Essential Not Sacrificial protest.
Later that day, an intense wind storm toppled trees across Hermiston and Morrow County, leaving thousands without power and crushing cars and homes in the Wilson Road Mobile Home Park in Boardman.
Two days after the Hermiston Freedom Rally, on June 1, the city saw another large protest as dozens of area residents gathered on the corner of Highway 395 and Elm Avenue to protest the death of George Floyd and other instances of racism and police brutality. A much larger Black Lives Matter protest was held the next week, and included speakers and a march down Highway 395. Other nearby communities, including Umatilla, held their own protests.
Umatilla County returned to Phase 2 of COVID-19 restrictions, allowing recreational facilities, such as the bowling alley and aquatic center, to reopen.
Local high schools held their graduation ceremonies, with most schools opting for a drive-thru ceremony while Hermiston High School allowed students in a few at a time to walk across a stage.
The Hermiston City Council voted to purchase the building east of city hall, known as the Lanham Building, as it continued to make plans for a new city hall on that block.
On June 9, 21-year-old Jesus Eli Lopez was found deceased of a gunshot wound in an apparent homicide in Hermiston.
The Oregon Health Authority began reporting workplace outbreaks of COVID-19, and Lamb Weston reported an outbreak at its Hermiston plant that forced a temporary closure of the plant and eventually grew to include more than 190 cases linked to the site over the next few months.
In July, Lifeways held a ribbon cutting for Aspen Springs Psychiatric Hospital, a secure 16-bed inpatient facility in Hermiston for people experiencing a mental health crisis.
A new mask mandate was put in place in Oregon on July 1, requiring adults to wear masks in indoor public spaces, such as grocery stores. The mandate would later be expanded. COVID-19 cases began rising by double digits daily in Umatilla County, driven mostly by workplace outbreaks, and increasing Hermiston’s lead as the ZIP code with the most cases in the state.
On July 6, Hermiston Police Department announced that a threatening, anonymous racist letter allegedly placed in the mailbox of former Umatilla County commission candidate Jonathan Lopez had been written by Lopez himself. Lopez confessed to writing the letter, which had gone viral on social media, in an attempt to show an example of the type of racism county residents encounter, and issued an apology.
The Hermiston City Council voted to make its food truck pod on Orchard Avenue a permanent fixture after a successful pilot program. The city plans to add utility hookups, shade and other improvements to the site.
Oregon State University researchers conducted free, door-to-door COVID-19 testing in Hermiston on July 26-27 and, after analyzing the data, concluded approximately 17% of Hermiston residents had COVID-19 that weekend.
Although the state had at the time left the door open for the possibility of in-person classes for some schools, Hermiston School District announced it was planning for an online-only start to the year based on Umatilla County’s comparatively high COVID-19 rates.
The month ended with the county getting sent back to baseline COVID-19 restrictions on July 31.
In August, Hermiston broke ground on the new Funland Playground, a larger, fire-resistant playground meant to replace the wooden version at Butte Park that burned down in 2019.
The Umatilla County Fair allowed FFA and 4-H students to drop of their animals for judging, viewable by video online, and held a virtual version of the Youth Livestock Auction, but canceled all other fair activities. The auction raised close to $500,000 for participating youths.
The Hermiston City Council approved $9.6 million in bonds for the new city hall and library renovation, with plans to make the bond payments with Enterprise Zone funds and money from Umatilla County renting a portion of the new building.
On Aug. 21, a Facebook invite for a weekly Black Lives Matter protest in Hermiston, which usually drew 5-10 local residents, went viral as a poster erroneously claimed that “Antifa” was planning on bringing busloads of up to 150 people from Portland.
While busloads of out-of-town protesters never materialized, more than 100 people — most armed with one or more firearms — showed up to the protest on the corner of Highway 395 and Highland Avenue with the stated intent of defending local businesses. The Black Lives Matter protest started with approximately 10 protesters, but as the night went on, the visible standoff on both sides of the road drew more people to both sides and occasionally the yelling and name-calling between the two sides erupted into physical confrontations as protesters crossed the street.
Earlier that same day, Hermiston resident Julien Zapien was seriously injured in a shooting in the Safeway parking lot in which the shooter escaped. Police Chief Jason Edmiston later stated the shooting, followed by the long protest and a second round of protests the next night, had used up more than a month’s worth of overtime budget in a single weekend.
On Sept. 7, a power line sparked a grass fire outside Umatilla that burned about 200 acres, caused evacuations in the South Hill neighborhood and disrupted electricity and internet service to homes in Umatilla and Hermiston. Meanwhile, unusually potent fire conditions led to an unprecedented collection of wildfires in Western and Southern Oregon that blanketed the entire state in toxic clouds of smoke. Forty-one members of the Oregon National Guard deployed from the Hermiston armory to fight the fires.
The Hermiston City Council voted to allow homeless shelters in industrial zones, but ban them within 1,000 feet of schools and parks, stymieing Stepping Stones’ plans to build a shelter behind the Agape House.
Umatilla County returned to Phase 2 after its new COVID-19 cases dropped significantly.
Students started the year with full-scale online classes, known as comprehensive distance learning. Hermiston School District broke ground on a new softball complex adjoining the high school and announced its new elementary school planned for Theater Lane will be known as Loma Vista Elementary School.
In October, Stanfield residents held a candlelight vigil and several fundraisers in support of five teenage boys who were seriously injured in a single-vehicle rollover crash outside Stanfield.
News broke that Umatilla County commissioner candidate Dan Dorran had been arrested for driving under the influence of intoxicants at the intersection of Highway 730 and Highway 395 outside Umatilla on Sept. 26 after leaving a golf tournament and getting into a crash.
A few students returned to in-person classes for the first time as the state allowed for limited in-person instruction for students in specific categories, such as special education. Hermiston Christian School filed a lawsuit against Gov. Brown and various government agencies alleging the school’s constitutional rights had been violated by forced closures.
Portland General Electric closed Boardman Generating Station, Oregon’s last coal-fired power plant.
The Columbia Development Authority board caused a rift between its member bodies — Umatilla County, Morrow County, Port of Umatilla, Port of Morrow and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — after a last-minute vote to deed the industrial portions of the Umatilla Chemical Depot over to the two ports. The board later rescinded the vote and agreed to discuss it further at a later date.
Two Hermiston teens, Raymon Rios and Hugo Madrigal-Leon, were shot and killed outside Hermiston on Nov. 29 in what the shooter claimed was self-defense after they shot his father.
Brian Sims became the new CEO of Good Shepherd Health Care System after Dennis Burke retired.
The November election ended with Dan Dorran becoming the newest Umatilla County commissioner and Rod Hardin, Doug Primmer, Nancy Peterson and Maria Duron winning a five-way race for the Hermiston City Council’s at-large seats. Later Philip Spicerkuhn was also appointed to the Ward IV seat that had been vacated by the resignation of Doug Smith.
Umatilla County, and then the rest of the state, was put on a two-week “freeze” that included increased COVID-19 regulations, including restaurant closures.
The county and the city of Umatilla entered into an agreement with Amazon Web Services for a 15-year tax break on two, new $200 million data centers Amazon is planning east of Umatilla.
In December, the city of Umatilla voted to purchase Big River Golf Course from the course’s collection of private owners.
The state announced new COVID-19 restrictions, moving from a system of three phases to a system of four risk levels. As COVID-19 cases rose rapidly in the state and in Umatilla County, both Umatilla and Morrow counties started the new system in the “extreme risk” category.
Communities celebrated the Christmas season in new, socially distanced ways, including livestreamed tree-lighting ceremonies, outdoor holiday bazaars and a drive-thru Festival of Lights at the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center.
On Dec. 18, the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Umatilla County, to YellowHawk Tribal Health Center in Mission, with the first vaccinations in Hermiston given on Monday, Dec. 28, at Good Shepherd Medical Center.