Coronavirus, Ahmaud Arbery slaying among most unforgettable local stories in 2020

Here’s a look at some of the biggest stories this year in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia

FILE- In this May 8, 2020 file photo, a woman wears a face covering with the likeness of shooting victim Ahmaud Arbery printed on it during a rally to protest Arbery's killing, in Brunswick Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
FILE- In this May 8, 2020 file photo, a woman wears a face covering with the likeness of shooting victim Ahmaud Arbery printed on it during a rally to protest Arbery's killing, in Brunswick Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – While the coronavirus pandemic dominated global and national headlines in 2020, it also gripped the local news, hitting close to home for those who tested positive for COVID-19, know someone who did or lost a loved one.

One local story, the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, made national news, with video of the shooting sparking outrage across the country.

Here’s a look at those stories and other unforgettable events that News4Jax covered this year:

Coronavirus

The Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia area has recorded over 124,000 cases of the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

Loves ones are mourning the loss of more than 1,700 people in the area who died related to COVID-19.

Soon after the pandemic reached Florida in March, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry closed all Duval County beaches. When they reopened the next month, the move garnered national media attention. Other area beaches, including in St. Johns County, also closed but have since reopened.

Curry announced on April 1 he was issuing an executive order requiring residents to stay at home unless necessary to leave. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that same day he was issuing a statewide stay-at-home order.

As residents began working from home and some businesses had to close their doors, students also had to begin learning online. When the new school year began in the fall, many area school districts provided the option of in-person and virtual learning.

About a month after DeSantis’ safer-at-home order went into effect, he announced Florida would begin reopening. Curry’s office worked to make sure city policies remained in sync with the governor’s plan.

In the beginning of April, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also published an order telling people to stay at home. The state began reopening later that month.

Over the summer, as COVID-19 cases started to peak, the testing site at TIAA Bank Field in downtown Jacksonville saw hourslong lines. That site was later moved to the Regency Square Mall and it continued to experience long lines at times. In June, Curry also issued a mandatory mask order, which has been extended until Dec. 26. Several other counties and cities in the area followed suit.

Now, businesses have largely reopened and all restrictions on restaurants have been lifted.

Shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine began arriving in December at Jacksonville-area hospitals, as well as at the Coastal Health District in Southeast Georgia. The first 10,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived Dec. 14 at UF Health Jacksonville, and the first 10 shots were quickly administered to emergency room and intensive care workers, including the medical center’s CEO.

Killing of Ahmaud Arbery

Ahmaud Arbery was running in the South Georgia neighborhood of Satilla Shores on Feb. 23 when authorities said the unarmed 25-year-old Black man was pursued by a white father and son and fatally shot.

The shooting was captured on cellphone video by a neighbor who a police report states was also attempting to block Arbery that afternoon.

More than two months passed before Gregory and Travis McMichael were arrested. The arrests came 48 hours after the video was leaked to the public. William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., who’s credited with recording the video, was also arrested about two weeks later.

All three men remain in jail while awaiting trial on charges that include felony murder.

The case was passed through three district attorneys before Georgia’s attorney general appointed the Cobb County district attorney to serve as a special prosecutor.

Ahmaud Arbery

Protests in late May

The last weekend in May saw the first days of protests and unrest in Jacksonville following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Officers arrested dozens of protesters on charges that included unlawful assembly and resisting police without violence over the two-day period of demonstrations throughout downtown.

Since then, prosecutors have cleared nearly all of those demonstrators arrested May 30 and 31 of the charges levied against them. The charges were dismissed after the State Attorney’s Office reviewed the more than 400 videos that have been released to the public.

State Attorney's office releasing hundreds of body camera videos of first two protests of May

Confederate statues removed

The Confederate statue in Jacksonville’s Hemming Park, the downtown city plaza framed on two sides by City Hall and the federal courthouse, was removed in the middle of a night in June. The statue and nameplate were hauled off well before daylight, leaving an empty pedestal.

Confederate statue removed from park overnight; others in Jacksonville also coming down

Later in the year, Hemming Park was also renamed after James Weldon Johnson, a Jacksonville Black civil rights activist, educator and composer who wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” -- often called “The Black National Anthem.”

In St. Augustine, two Confederate monuments were removed from downtown. Two weeks after the statue in Jacksonville was moved, St. Augustine commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of moving the Confederate monument from the Plaza de la Constitucion. The memorial was eventually transported to its new home at Trout Creek Fish Camp.

Confederate memorial removed from downtown St. Augustine

Another statue was also taken down in the ancient city. A statue of Confederate Gen. William Loring that had stood on University of Florida property in downtown St. Augustine since 1920 was removed in August.

There were protests in St. Augustine over the removal of both monuments.

In August, the Putnam County Board of Commissioners approved the relocation of the Confederate statue in front of the courthouse in Palatka.

In Georgia, Brunswick commissioners voted in November to remove the Confederate monument from Hanover Square.

Lot J

There has been ongoing drama among city leaders over the plan to develop Lot J of TIAA Bank Field in downtown Jacksonville.

City Councilman Reggie Gaffney has said that he believes there are enough votes to approve the deal and make the $445 million entertainment complex a reality.

City Council President Tommy Hazouri deferred the vote on the Lot J bill in December and said he’d like to see a final vote Jan. 12.

The deal calls for the city to invest $233 million in direct spending or loans by the city of Jacksonville to the developer for Jaguars owner Shad Khan, the Cordish Companies.

Lot J may become Jacksonville's newest entertainment district

Until Jan. 7, City Council members will be reviewing the documents and then will take a vote during a special meeting. If enough agree, they could pass it then or wait until Jan. 12 at a regular council meeting.

Those in favor of the Lot J project say it’ll bring jobs, boost Jacksonville’s economy and lead to a thriving downtown.

But critics are concerned about the taxpayers’ share of the multimillion-dollar price tag.

RNC that wasn’t

President Donald Trump planned to accept his renomination in Jacksonville, but five weeks before the event in late August, he pulled the plug on the four-night Republican National Convention celebration in Florida, citing a “flare-up” of the coronavirus in Florida.

Trump had decided in June to move parts of the GOP convention to Jacksonville amid a dispute with North Carolina’s Democratic leaders over holding an event indoors with maskless supporters.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams had said shortly before Trump nixed the Jacksonville portion of the event that due to financial and timeline challenges, he didn’t have the resources needed to keep residents and visitors safe from both the spread of the coronavirus and potential protests that the event would have attracted to the city.

More than 10,000 people were expected in Jacksonville -- a fraction of the number that would typically attend a nominating convention.

The event was met with its share of opposition, including a group of attorneys who filed a lawsuit that demanded changes be made to keep people safe. A group of 70 pastors wrote a letter to the mayor, expressing “grave concern” over the city hosting the event. And nearly 200 physicians signed a letter address to the mayor’s office, saying the convention should be postponed.

A small subset of GOP delegates still gathered in Charlotte to formally renominate Trump. The convention ended up featuring recorded content and live speeches, including one by Trump on the White House lawn.

Cargo ship fire

Eight firefighters were injured June 4 while battling a fire aboard a cargo ship at Blount Island.

The eight members of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department were among dozens trying to find the fire inside the Norwegian ship loaded with used vehicles when an explosion occurred. The firefighters escaped the ship with their lives but with burns to their heads and hands. A ninth firefighter was hospitalized for heat exhaustion.

According to the Coast Guard, because of the tireless efforts to spray water on the ship’s exterior, the vessel’s hull remained intact -- keeping it from breaking up and sinking, which was a good thing for safety and potential environmental impacts.

The Coast Guard said at the time that the cars were melting inside. The hull itself never rose above 350 degrees.

On Aug. 30, the vessel was moved from Blount Island.

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Sky 4 over burning cargo ship

Slain Putnam County boys

Two brothers were brutally killed in their Melrose home in August.

Robert Baker, 12, and Tayten Baker, 14, had recently moved with their family from Polk County to Putnam County when authorities said they were killed by their aunt’s boyfriend, Mark Wilson Jr., who the family had allowed to live in an outbuilding on the property.

The medical examiner said both boys died from blunt force trauma and deep lacerations. Investigators said a hammer and knife were used to kill the boys, and the weapons were both recovered by deputies.

Wilson, who the sheriff described as a “sick monster,” was indicted by a grand jury on two counts of first-degree murder, one count of burglary with a battery and one count of burglary while armed.

The state intends to seek the death penalty.

Robert and Tayten Baker (Kim Rigney/GoFundMe)

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