As 2021 approaches, The Beacon takes a look back at the stories that shaped 2020. How young we all were in January.
Jane Shang, embattled city manager of Deltona, resigns. Shang’s many controversies were well-covered by The Beacon. Interim City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper took over, but was later demoted in November in a tense City Commission meeting. Deltona’s current interim city manager is former city Public Works Director John Peters III.
In DeLand, a sign ordinance puts a large electronic-and-neon display at Wholesale Computer in Downtown DeLand in jeopardy. City officials later worked with the owner and other members of the public to revise its sign ordinance.
Longtime Stetson University groundskeeper and former Mayor of DeLand David Rigsby retires. Rigsby later died in early May.
An EF-1 strength tornado hits south DeLand, damaging the roof of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2380 near Earl Brown Park and causing an estimated $20,000 in damage to city recreational facilities.
The DeLand Police Department trains their officers on implicit bias. “Every walk of life could use this training, but especially so in policing, so that inherent biases can be managed and the focus is instead on facts and circumstances,” DeLand Police Chief Jason Umberger told The Beacon. All DPD officers are given the training.
Sixteen animals are seized from Journey’s End, an animal sanctuary for unadoptable animals, by Volusia County Animal Services. Later in the year, the county and the sanctuary reached a settlement that requires semimonthly inspections of the facility for a year.
Gus Gibbs, giant of the DeLand business world and an icon of the Downtown community, dies Jan. 30.
Volusia County Library Services digitizes their collection of old newspapers, in a boon for researchers and history buffs.
A rally in Tallahassee brings thousands of teachers and school staff to protest in favor of increasing teacher pay. Gov. Ron DeSantis eventually signed a bill in June designed to raise minimum salaries to $47,500.
Halifax Health opens a 90-bed Deltona hospital Feb. 4.
Nearly 200 people turn up to find out about volunteering at The Bridge, a 30-bed $2.1 million dollar facility in DeLand designed to help chronically homeless adults that was originally intended to open in April. The facility’s full opening was delayed until September.
The Deltona City Commission deadlocks on a vote to rezone a tract of land on the southeast side of the city that was intended to become a tightly packed subdivision. The vote is one of few that went against efforts for development in West Volusia this year.
ABM, the janitorial contractor for Volusia County Schools, comes under intense fire by the School Board. Board members indicate interest in bringing janitorial services back under the umbrella of the administration, an idea that was later derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Since a reporting system was put into place a few months later, the relationship between the contractor and school system has improved.
Natural-food grocer Earth Fare, set to move into part of the old Winn-Dixie building on DeLand’s south side, instead files for bankruptcy and closes all their stores nationwide.
The 2020 ME STRONG event in DeLand brings 4,467 runners together on a rainy day in February. Thousands of dollars were raised for those battling cancer.
With the 20-year contract between the West Volusia Hospital Authority and the AdventHealth DeLand hospital in its final year, the Hospital Authority considers not renewing their contract, which in 2019 provided nearly $6 million of ad valorem property-tax money to assist paying for the care for West Volusia’s most vulnerable residents. The contract was ultimately not renewed.
Ritter’s Towne Pharmacy in Downtown DeLand suddenly closes Feb. 14, shocking its customers. The owner cited financial difficulties for the closure.
The Beacon writer Eli Witek profiles the Ocklawaha River, less than 40 miles from Volusia County, southwest of Palatka and slightly northeast of the Ocala National Forest. A failed plan to create the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, a project halted in 1971, flooded thousands of acres of forest, clogged miles of waterways with invasive vegetation, and made 20 natural springs disappear.
March is when COVID-19 has real impacts on Volusia County and the state — in the first week of that month, there were zero cases in the county. By the end of March, there were 88 confirmed cases. March 1 saw the first case in Florida — by the end of March, there were 6,741 cases statewide.
Changes come fast and furious after Volusia County declares a state of emergency March 14 — only one week earlier, the popular annual Bike Rally brought thousands to Downtown DeLand. Stetson University cancels classes, while Volusia County Schools students never return to physical school after their mid-March Spring Break.
That same day, Gov. Ron DeSantis closes businesses, beginning with bars and nightclubs, and limits restaurant occupancy. DeLand businesses set up a GoFundMe for their employees, and begin to work on solutions. Curbside pickups begin for area restaurants.
Toilet paper flies off the shelves, along with various other commodities. Our “Native Reflections” column compares the shortage to that experienced in wartime.
The 2020 Census, launched in earnest in mid-March and originally expected to end by the beginning of June, must plan to count every person living in the United States in the midst of a global pandemic. The deadline, extended several times, was reached Oct. 31.
AdventHealth begins testing for COVID-19, while Volusia County officials remain mum about details of the positive cases in the county.
The Beacon posts multiple updates daily on our website, and lowers our paywall for COVID-19 coverage.
The presidential primary understandably has a low turnout, with 30.8 percent of registered parties participating, down from 44.7 percent in 2016. Three-fourths of those votes are vote-by-mail ballots, presaging how people would choose to vote in the primary and general election. Former Vice President Joe Biden handily wins the Democratic presidential nomination against his closest challenger, Bernie Sanders, 58.3 percent to 21.9 percent.
The Beacon ends our longtime Midweek edition. “West Volusia businesses are suffering, but they’re working to cope, and The Beacon is no exception,” publisher Barb Shepherd wrote in a message to subscribers. “As of March 24, to reduce our expenses, we will cancel our Midweek edition, which local subscribers receive on Tuesdays. We’ll be a once-a-week paper, again, for as long as we must be.”
All 63,000-plus Volusia County public-school students return to school — virtually, or via distributed paper packets — on March 30, as part of the district’s unprecedented “distance learning” contingency plan. That same day, the State of Florida extended closure of schools from April 15 to May 1.
Greyhound racing ends in Volusia County, with the Daytona Beach Kennel Club shutting down racing months before a Dec. 31, 2020 deadline, mandated by voters who approved an amendment to the Florida Constitution. Statewide, more than 60 percent of the voters had decided in 2018 to ban greyhound racing.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a 30-day shelter-in-place executive order April 1. All Florida residents are ordered to limit their movement to essential services, like grocery shopping and health care.
In West Volusia, drive-up COVID-19 testing begins, while birthdays are now celebrated by drive-by caravans. One Stetson student shares her battle with the virus, citizens turn their eyes to charitable giving, and unemployment skyrockets, crashing the state’s website.
The county government learns they will receive $96.5 million to cover the county’s extra costs of dealing with the pandemic and its ripple effects from the federal government stimulus bill. Local cities, the county, and the state offer renter assistance, and a moratorium is put on evictions.
In DeLand, Elusive Grape owner Bill Budzinski pours money and food into various charities, including The Neighborhood Center and the Spring Hill Resource Center. Budzinski would continue throughout the pandemic, donating thousands of meals through the summer and fall.
The agriculture industry is among the businesses that see an increase in customers, as residents turn their eyes to home improvements and self-sufficiency. Nurseries and U-Pick farms report increases in sales.
An Earth Day time capsule, buried 25 years earlier at Thomas C. Kelly Administration Center in DeLand, is opened April 22. County officials refilled the capsule with items from today and reburied it for the next 25 years.
Aldi, a popular German discount grocery chain, opens in DeLand. The company would later make plans and begin renovations on an existing building for a second location in the city later in the year.
SunRail celebrates its sixth anniversary, but Volusia County officials worry about the cost of running the system. The county, along with Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando, is set to take ownership and control of the system May 1, 2021, unless the Florida Department of Transportation grants more time for the transition.
Future events, like July Fourth celebrations, are canceled by cities, highlighting that COVID-19 would continue through the year despite hopes to the contrary. Instead, some cities, like Orange City, put their money toward community food drives.
Thirty-seven-year-old Gregory Howe, a veteran, is fatally shot by Volusia County Sheriff’s Office deputies after fleeing a DeLand Police Department traffic stop. DeLand Police Chief Jason Umberger and Sheriff Mike Chitwood clashed over the handling of the incident.
COVID-19 hits the Volusia County Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Daytona Beach, and DeLand City Commissioner Jessica Davis tests positive, while Gov. DeSantis announces Phase 1 of reopening to begin May 4.
The Beacon staff writer Anthony DeFeo writes about his ordeal receiving a COVID-19 test. In a multiday adventure, DeFeo was sent on a wild goose chase involving several testing sites. His results ended up getting lost in a batch that AdventHealth sent to a lab in Texas, which didn’t perform the tests in a timely manner, invalidating the results.
Police officers block the entrance to the C-Store, a convenience store at the corner of Adele and Beresford avenues on May 16.
On May 16, a block party in the historically Black area of Spring Hill in southwest DeLand ends in chaos between police and citizens after hours of peaceful interaction during the day. The Beacon, which had a reporter on scene during parts of the night, published an article online the following day. The story sparked a defensive response from the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, which accused the paper of playing “the race card.”
National organizations picked up the story, initially focusing on the propriety of large gatherings during the pandemic and later sparking a discussion about conflict between African American partygoers and white police officers. Some 54,242 people viewed the story on The Beacon website, and police departments held multiple press conferences in the days afterward.
Only nine days after the block party in DeLand, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, forever altering the country’s discussions about race and policing.
Citing the coronavirus pandemic and the need to protect public health, Deltona officials locked the doors of City Hall and barred members of the public, including a Beacon reporter, from attending the May 18 regular meeting of the City Commission. Although the Beacon reporter was admitted to the meeting more than an hour after it began, other people were not allowed to enter the chambers, even though some wanted to speak on a zoning issue affecting them.
Piersonites voted in a special election to merge the positions of Town Council chairman and mayor. The previous mayor, James Sowell, passed away in March and Town Council Chairman Samuel Bennett handled his duties unofficially. Bennett later ran unopposed for the position of mayor in November.
Hurricane season begins June 1. Forecasters had warned the season would be active, and their predictions proved to be correct: The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active on record, with 31 cyclones, of which 30 were named, and 13 became hurricanes, six of them above Category 3 strength. Central Florida would ultimately escape relatively unscathed.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May, countrywide protests reach West Volusia. DeLand and Deltona held their own protests in early June. While much was made of the possibility of destruction and violence, both local cities saw peaceful protests. Later in the month, despite the pandemic, socially distanced Juneteenth celebrations were held across the county.
Few businesses were able to increase sales during COVID-19. Not so for gun shops and pawnshops: Gun sales skyrocket, according to a report by Beacon writer Al Everson.
Coronavirus cases spike in Volusia County and the state as a whole, even as Gov. Ron DeSantis orders the economy to restart. By the end of June, a cumulative total of 2,105 Volusia Countyians are confirmed to have or have had COVID-19.
The Beacon begins profiles of local elections. Many of the races are potentially quite consequential, including races for state attorney, County Council chair, and a fight for control at the West Volusia Hospital Authority.
Stetson University President Wendy B. Libby officially retires. She is succeeded by Christopher F. Roellke, a former Fulbright scholar.
After years of discussion and planning, Volusia County moves to widen Orange Camp Road. The county will build a roundabout at the intersection of Orange Camp Road and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beltway.
Overall, roundabouts gain in popularity, as the county and the Florida Department of Transportation work to design and build one at the crossing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beltway and State Road 44, and Orange City officials say they want to improve safety at the intersection of East Rhode Island and Leavitt avenues.
A 51-second clip of a newly installed kayak launcher at DeLeon Springs State Park goes viral on The West Volusia Beacon Facebook page, with more than 500 comments, 3,000 likes and reactions, 2,300 shares, and 1.7 million reached.
In early July, DeLand and Orange City opt for citywide mask mandates inside of all established businesses, with associated fines, while Deltona passes a resolution urging residents to mask up. In Lake Helen, the City Commission sent a letter to the county, urging them to adopt a countywide mandate.
In mid-July, DeLand was sued over the mask mandate, as part of one Lake County legislator and attorney’s efforts to prevent the practice in cities in Central Florida. As in similar efforts, the suit was dismissed months later.
The governor orders schools to reopen in the fall, leaving the Volusia County School Board grappling with the momentous task. The district's new school superintendent, Dr. Scott Fritz, was sidelined by cancer in May, and the administration of the vast school system was then overseen by interim superintendent Dr. Carmen Balgobin. Fritz is expected to return in February 2021.
An order to suspend jury trials in March is continually renewed throughout the year, creating a backlog of criminal cases in the justice system. The first trial in Volusia is not held until early November.
The Volusia County Clerk’s Office lays off 11 people due to a $1.1 million budget shortfall as the regular revenue stream for the system — in the form of traffic fines, filing fees, and court costs — is impeded by the pandemic.
DeLeon Springs State Park visitors are surprised July 31 by murky, dark water in the normally crystal-clear spring. The cause? Sinkholes nearby stirring up sediment under the springs. The state park was shut down for seven days while the waters slowly cleared.
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood tests positive for COVID-19 July 31. “I have no idea how I contracted this and that is a lesson in itself: Anyone can catch this,” Chitwood wrote in a Facebook post.
Cases spike in West Volusia, from 2,219 on July 1 to 6,959 by July 31. Larger cities like Deltona and DeLand add an average of 25 cases a day. By the end of the month, 112 Volusia residents will have died as a result of the virus.
The Beacon wins seven awards from the Florida Press Association for our 2019 coverage. Four of the awards are first place.
The Beacon also publishes our Primary Voter’s Guide, a publication designed to help voters make informed decisions. We later published a Voter’s Guide to the general election.
A suicidal armed man drives around DeLand before police officers corral him near AdventHealth DeLand on Stone Street. The standoff lasted four hours, but the man, Theodore Melton, a former DeLand police officer and U.S. military veteran, was talked down by former co-workers and placed in custody under the Baker Act, a law dealing with possibly mentally unstable people who may do harm to others or themselves.
A handful of businesses close in the normally booming Downtown DeLand, and the DeLand City Commission approves closing a handful of streets on Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. to allow for social distancing.
Clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccinations — by the drug companies Moderna and Pfizer — are conducted at Accel Clinical Research, a DeLand lab. By the end of August, more than 300 Volusia residents had participated.
Nearly three-fourths of the votes in the Aug. 18 primary election were cast using mail-in ballots. The high percentage of mail-in votes cast during the primary followed the pattern set by the presidential primary and foreshadowed the Nov. 3 general election, which would see nearly 83 percent of votes cast either early or by mail.
Lake Helen creates a dangerous-dog registry, named for the 6-year-old child whose mini pony was allegedly killed by dogs earlier in the year. To aid the effort, the family brought the mini pony to City Commission chambers via the elevator, and wearing mini pony shoes to prevent scuffing the floor.
A four-and-a-half-mile-long path of destruction is left in the wake of an EF-2 strength tornado in DeLand.
A photo snapped by a local pastor of what appeared to be the tornado funnel sets off a debate on Facebook on whether it is the funnel, or the windshield wiper of the pastor’s car. One commenter dubbed the controversy #Wipergate. The National Weather Service Melbourne office later confirms that they believe the picture is indeed the tornado funnel.
“We also received the picture you attached and believe it to be a real picture of the tornado as it was ongoing,” NWS Melbourne Meteorologist Kevin Rodriguez said in reply to an email. “The driver was on N. Woodland Blvd, looking north, just before the intersection with Plymouth Ave. The tornado crossed Woodland Blvd. just north of where the picture was taken.”
Schools decide to allow fall sports to begin with some safety measures in place like temperature checks before practice. Weeks later, DeLand High School football coach Steve Allen would test positive for COVID-19, and several other outbreaks throughout the fall would temporarily sideline teams and put players and faculty in quarantine.
With nearly 2,000 new homes approved for development in bustling eastern DeLand over the past two years, disagreements over the mostly residential growth are a familiar pastime. In July, Cresswind, a 600-home “active-adult” community that will occupy land on the eastern bank of Lake Winnemissett was approved by city commissioners over the objections of some residents.
Among the odd effects of COVID-19 — a rise in recycling. The increased need for commodities such as toilet paper, and surge in cardboard recycled by households as many people opt for delivery, brings recycling prices, in the red for nearly two years, finally back to black.
An Amazon fulfillment center opens in Deltona, bringing some 500 jobs and $6 million from the company for road improvements. The huge building encloses 1.4 million square feet for receiving and shipping packages. Approximately 300 semitrucks come and go from the Amazon location, which operates around the clock, seven days a week.
A Beacon story about an African American jogger stopped by the police in Deltona for fitting the description of a leaf-blower thief goes viral nationwide. The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office later invites the man, Joseph Griffin, to speak at a series of deputy trainings on bias and perception.
Ground breaks at the site of the old DeLand Elks Lodge for the new DeLand Fire Department, at 150 S. Clara Ave., with an expected end date near the end of 2021. The old DeLand Fire Department headquarters, at 201 W. Howry Ave., hadn’t received major improvements since the 1970s.
As annual events continue to be canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, St. Peter Catholic Church’s Oktoberfest tries something different — going virtual. The festival, which featured virtual bingo, would be one of the few to choose a virtual route — annual events like the Fall Festival of the Arts, Biketoberfest, and more were all canceled.
Herbert Bennett, Pierson town councilman of more than 30 years, passes away after suffering a stroke. Bennett was running for re-election against Sergia Cardenas, who would be elected in the November general election as the first Hispanic member on the Pierson Town Council.
Food drops in DeLand and Deltona attract thousands of hungry people, with many facing financial difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic-related unemployment or underemployment.
The West Volusia Hospital Authority adopts its budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, shaving off millions of dollars in money that used to go to AdventHealth DeLand, resulting in lower property taxes for West Volusians. The change also puts the emergency care of people who can’t afford health care into question — something the Hospital Authority is still grappling with as 2021 begins.
The Jungle Den, an aging waterfront resort in Astor on the St. Johns River, is set to undergo a $30 million redevelopment. The project would include a new marina, motel, restaurant, bait-and-tackle shop, general store, swimming pool, 460-space recreational-vehicle park, and spaces for mobile homes.
With the general election nearly in sight, county residents face a host of issues: a proposed increase in the minimum wage, an outsider versus established politician in the races for County Council and state attorney, and whether to continue longtime environmental conservation programs ECHO and Volusia Forever.
Against community opposition, the Deltona City Commission approves some 500 new homes in the southeastern part of the city, near Osteen.
While in-school populations continue to grow as people move back from virtual options, Volusia County Schools refuses to confirm COVID-19 cases or quarantines at University High School in Orange City. Parents and school personnel verified that a volleyball team, the school’s band, Junior ROTC, and all six periods of World History class had been affected.
A group of anti-mask protesters delay the start of the Oct. 27 Volusia County School Board meeting when they refuse to put on masks to protest a School Board vote on mandatory masking in schools. The group, mostly mothers, some with children in tow, were trespassed, and the School Board voted to continue the mandatory mask mandate.
A mural featuring Chinese immigrant Lue Gim Gong, “The Citrus Wizard,” is repainted in Artisan Alley. The original mural, by local artist Courtney Canova, was destroyed after a car crashed into a wall in 2013.
A dozen of the DeLand post office’s 88 employees test positive for COVID-19, though mail delivery remains mostly unaffected.
The Nov. 3 general election results in a number of upsets, including DeLeon Springs farmer Jeff Brower being elected Volusia County chair. Brower had run on an anti-establishment and anti-overdevelopment platform.
Voters opt to increase the minimum wage, keep conservation programs Volusia Forever and ECHO, and retain incumbent State Attorney R.J. Larizza.
Less than a quarter of a percent of the 308,109 votes cast in the presidential race are for write-in candidates this year, but those 693 voters displayed a big helping of division and diversity. In an extremely unofficial tally by The Beacon staff, the split ticket of God/Jesus narrowly defeated Kanye West, with 36 write-in ballots for Kanye vs. 38 votes for God and God-related entities.
An investigation shows that Volusia County law-enforcement agencies saw uneven application of civil citation programs, with many juveniles in some jurisdictions still being arrested instead of cited.
Lake Helen City Administrator Becky Witte quits. Witte had been the focus of ire from some citizens and two City Commission members for more than a year.
Annual events begin to return to West Volusia. The DeLand Original Music Festival is among the first to be issued a permit. DeLand city officials vote to once again allow special events on public property, but only if the organizers adhere to strict COVID-19 prevention rules.
Scott Ritchey, owner of the Downtown DeLand juice bar Beeatroot, dies in a car accident. The Downtown DeLand community comes together to support the Ritchey family, and through a silent auction fundraiser, raises $15,000 for the family.
The Beacon begins running a series of excerpts from local historian Karen Ryder’s newest book, Better Country Beyond, exploring the earliest history of West Volusia. The first explores the legacy of DeLand horticulturist Lue Gim Gong.
Stores around West Volusia once again experience a shortage of paper products, such as paper towels and toilet paper, due to panic over another large spike in COVID-19 cases.
The citrus industry continues its fight against citrus greening disease, also known as Huanglongbing. Local growers and scientists were optimistic that new technologies, like genetic editing, could hold the key to making oranges resistant to the bacteria that causes the disease.
A Lake Helen holiday tradition, the Butler’s Express road tour train, returns for another year. The train takes visitors on a meandering path across the city, to look at lit-up homes and other Christmas decorations. The train is named for creator David Butler, an inventor and tinkerer originally from Pennsylvania.
Gregory Ramos, a DeBary teen, agrees to a plea deal in the 2018 strangulation death of his mother, 46-year-old Gail Cleavenger. Under the terms of the deal, Gregory Ramos, now 17, faces 45 years in state prison on the count of first-degree murder.
Volusia County Schools announces it will continue to offer virtual alternatives to in-person schooling, instead of shutting them down as planned, at least through summer 2021 in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Beacon speaks with Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Lisa Lewis to clear up several misconceptions about the election. Lewis said there are numerous safeguards in place that make it virtually impossible for someone to illegitimately vote or to change the result of an election.
Deltona celebrates its 25th anniversary as an incorporated city.
The COVID-19 vaccines begin to make their way to Florida. AdventHealth Daytona Beach is the first Volusia County hospital to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.