In 2020, Carolina Public Press published more articles covering more news across the state than ever before.
While the online independent nonprofit news organization continued to produce informative in-depth and investigative articles that helped our statewide readership hit an all-time high in 2020, the nature of the year and the nature of the news made these stories all the more urgent, whether shedding light on something the government didn’t want you to know, holding businesses and government officials accountable or explaining a complicated aspect of how to vote, track your ballot or lessen your risk of getting sick.
CPP’s coverage and legal efforts this year, sometimes as part of a collaborative team of news organizations, helped open up key public health information to, well, the public.
It also cast a spotlight on court and legislative processes that were flying under the radar, helped people navigate the democratic process better and drew attention to unresolved issues that could have long-term implications for our economy, education system, health and environment.
These stories asked tough questions about whether policies really worked as claimed, were based on the best information available and had unadvertised consequences that affected North Carolina residents.
In other areas, the way forward may have been less clear and the subject of honest debate, but CPP’s reporting explained these complicated nuances and drew attention to everyday challenges people in North Carolina face.
This article analyzes the Top 10 CPP stories of 2020.
From mid-March to year’s end, the novel coronavirus pandemic dominated the year as no other story has done in a long time. The potentially fatal viral disease was easily transmittable, a threat to everyone and a great risk for severe illness or death to those with cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, old age or obesity.
While COVID-19 influenced almost every story, looking only at stories that directly addressed the pandemic, coronavirus was the story of the year.
CPP looked at counties with high risk, how health officials in different parts of the state were responding, how different counties adopted their own policies, the spread of the pandemic in congregate populations like long-term care facilities and prisons, measures put in place to limit the spread of the virus, records of deaths, interviews with survivors, the spread in meatpacking facilities, the resurgence of the virus late in the year and the rollout of the vaccine.
This doesn’t even get into the many articles that focused on the residual effects of the coronavirus on every aspect of how people experienced 2020, something that’s not going to change until well into 2021.
2. 2020 Elections
If there had been no coronavirus, this high-stakes, closely fought, ridiculously litigious and brutally contentious election year would have been the top story of 2020 hands down.
But even the democratic process stumbled under the weight of the virus.
After smooth primaries in March, the practicalities of conducting an election with a serious health crisis underway hit home. Election workers and voters wore masks for June second primaries in parts of the state, but that was only a taste of what was to come.
Large numbers of voters opted to avoid crowds of potentially infected and unmasked spreaders by voting absentee by mail, driving a need for additional election workers in every county to handle the shifted voting format.
The elections also infected the public policy debate surrounding the pandemic, with some conservatives saying the risk was overstated and opposing measures intended to halt the virus as economically dangerous. A dance of policy and court action ensued over possibly deliberate slowdowns in the mail, extensions in the time for ballots to arrive, forced resignations of the Republican state election board members who had supported extensions and a failed court effort to block extensions. When all was said and done, the last ballots to arrive often favored Republicans, even though the lion’s share of mail-in ballots went heavily Democratic. Election Day itself, heavily Republican, went fairly smoothly with so many voters having already cast ballots early or by mail.
The results in key races were close. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein were among the party’s top winners with relatively close reelection bids. Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Tillis won re-election after a sexting scandal hobbled his opponent’s campaign. Republicans swept the major court races, including a chief justice race that saw a statewide recount.
The GOP also picked up seats in the General Assembly. Democrats gained seats in the state’s U.S. House delegation but fewer than they might have expected. President Donald Trump took the state’s electoral votes with a plurality win even though most voters opposed him; however, he lost a not-so-close reelection bid nationally with narrow losses in multiple battleground states not named North Carolina.
And then the conspiracy nonsense started. Both before and after the election, CPP offered explanations to help voters avoid the sea of misinformation coming from political campaigns, fringe media outlets, rogue politicians, special interest groups and social media trolls. Articles looked at how to obtain an absentee ballot, how to track your ballot and why your voter history didn’t reflect the fact that your ballot had already been counted.
3. Racial justice and protests
George Floyd was born in Fayetteville in 1973. On May 25, 2020, a Minneapolis store clerk claimed that Floyd had passed a counterfeit bill. Police who responded included Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes while Floyd lay handcuffed and complained that he couldn’t breathe. Floyd, who was Black, died of asphyxiation. Chauvin, who is white, was fired and charged in Floyd’s death, along with other officers, nearly all white.
Protests erupted nationwide, including in North Carolina cities, as Floyd’s death became the catalyst for the expression of long-building furor over too many people of color who have been mistreated by law enforcement. For days and nights in succession in late May and early June, people marched in the streets demanding justice.
However peaceful the marches began, some of them turned to property violence, though this was often directed against symbols of oppression, such as public Confederate monuments and historic buildings associated with slavery. Among these was the Market House in Fayetteville, where public auctions, including for human beings, sometimes took place before the Civil War; during protests, one man poured gasoline inside the structure and set it ablaze before sprinklers extinguished the fire. A suspect was charged in the incident.
The response of police to protesters in some cities, including Asheville, with SWAT gear, tear gas and rubber bullets, appeared to inflame tensions further at times.
Calls for defunding the police swept many cities, but this also sparked a backlash, amid confusion about what reforms were being sought. Some candidates on both sides of the police funding issue campaigned on it, but it was not clear how much it influenced any specific contest.
Some monuments are being removed, while schools and institutions associated with the Confederacy, slaveholders and racists are being renamed as a result of renewed attention to the nation’s racially unjust history. Fort Bragg will likely be renamed.
But a full reckoning with the demands and actions of both protesters and police still awaits.
4. Economic collapse
Regardless of how the economy would have done otherwise, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic kicked the stops out.
To avoid spreading the virus, mandatory stay-at-home orders were set in place, exempting only essential workers. Many forms of businesses, including dine-in restaurants, theaters, bars and gyms, had to close down completely for months. When businesses were allowed to open and more people were allowed to return to their jobs, social distancing rules were in place. Not everyone followed the rules evenly. But the effect on the economy was clear across the world, with North Carolina no exception.
Businesses reliant on travel, tourism and hospitality struggled. Many small businesses had lost too much during the initial close and did not reopen. Some larger retailers also struggled. Massive numbers of North Carolina residents applied for unemployment benefits. Federal stimulus checks helped somewhat, but many people were struggling. Food banks and other direct-services nonprofit agencies reported unprecedented levels of demand.
The chain of supply and demand meant that some businesses, such as farming ventures, struggled to find new markets for products that would have been destined for closed restaurants.
Some entire communities struggled to survive, including Anson County where the Wal-Mart closed just ahead of the pandemic.
The economic despair helped drive resistance to measures intended to halt the spread of COVID-19. How the state’s economy will fair in 2021 remains uncertain, even if the pandemic crisis recedes over the coming months.
5. Education during a pandemic
Early in the pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper closed the schools and colleges, with instruction continuing online through the spring.
This brought challenges for students, parents and educators. Uneven access to high-speed internet across the state, a problem that CPP has reported on frequently before the pandemic, was brought into focus.
Preparations for the fall semester brought renewed tensions as the governor allowed districts to chose between limited in-person instruction and entirely virtual instruction. Some districts that opted to go in-person had to change that decision when outbreaks occurred. Schools systems trying to make the best choices were often frustrated by conflicting and new information about the vulnerability of youngsters to COVID, as well as their ability to spread it.
Some school systems proved unable to handle even virtual board meetings, no telling how their virtual instruction went. The problems with uneven broadband access only grew more severe. Parents concerned about the chaos and health risk opted in large numbers to seek out home schooling, crashing the state’s home-schooling application site at one point. North Carolina teachers were jaded by decisions that didn’t always seem to value their health very highly, with many planning to leave the profession.
6. Mission Health
Asheville-based Mission Health fell under close state scrutiny in early 2020. Previously a nonprofit, following its 2019 acquisition by for-profit HCA, Mission remains the largest health care provider in the North Carolina mountains.
Attorney General Josh Stein had placed stipulations on the company when approving the purchase and questions arose about compliance as an independent monitor met with often angry members of affected communities to discuss concerns.
As Stein demanded answers, the pandemic set in, disrupting this process somewhat. At the same time, nurses at Mission’s flagship hospital in Buncombe County began an effort to unionize. As such efforts often are, the situation was contentious, with claims that the company unfairly intimidated workers and used work time to promote pro-company, anti-union propaganda, even though the hospital was slammed by conditions of the early pandemic.
When the union vote finally took place in August, it wasn’t even close. HCA’s management of Mission Health led to the first successful health care unionization effort in years. Who knows what they’ll accomplish in 2021?
7. Cherokee County prosecutions and litigation
Since 2018, CPP has been reporting on a series of potentially criminal problems in Cherokee County involving the administrations of former Department of Social Services Director Cindy Palmer and her husband, Sheriff Derrick Palmer. To be clear, these issues appear to be independent, but both have been the subject of State Bureau of Investigation probes and federal civil suits.
CPP reported heavily on both situations over the previous two years. Key developments occurred in May 2020. The family of deceased jail inmate Joshua Shane Long filed a damning federal lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office in his fall 2018 jailhouse overdose death.
CPP has previously reported on irregularities in how the case was handled, including a delay in providing medical care and placing him on a medical helicopter that was waiting to take him to a hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn. Long was pronounced dead at the hospital, but it’s unclear where exactly he died.
Meanwhile, also in May, Cindy Palmer and other former DSS employees received felony indictments over their alleged role in a yearslong scheme to remove children from their families without going through the court system as the law requires. A judge had previously ruled the practice was unlawful and a violation of the constitutional rights of the families involved.
Despite the indictments, county officials, some with close ties to Sheriff Palmer, declined to remove Cindy Palmer from her current position as a financial officer with Cherokee DSS, to which she was rehired by local officials despite the ongoing state criminal probe.
DSS also faces an ongoing federal lawsuit from some of the families affected by these policies. The situation continues to raise questions about the inability of the state to prevent or fully remedy basic violations of families’ rights by county-level agencies.
8. National forests
It took far more years than anyone expected, but in February 2020, the U.S. Forest Service finally released its draft plan for new management guidelines governing Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, which combined make up a huge area of Western North Carolina.
The debate over aspects of the plan remains fierce, with different interest groups favoring different approaches. The draft plan offers a range of balanced options, with the final decisions on how they should be implemented upcoming in 2021.
The decision is being closely watched by forest scientists, ecologists, environmental advocates, hunters, fishing guides, mountain bikers and advocates for the timber industry, among others. Some mountain counties have economies that depend entirely on their relationship with the national forests. But the forests are also a national resource that happens to be in the backyard of Western North Carolina.
CPP has closely followed the entire lengthy process and will continue to do so.
9. Coastal fishing
Several CPP articles in 2020 examined conflicting interests related to coastal fishing.
Some individuals and groups are concerned about overfishing of certain species and favor additional regulations. But others say those regulations won’t work and will only damage legitimate commercial or recreational fishing. Legislative proposals and litigation are both strategic fronts in this ongoing conflict.
Meanwhile, repeated hurricanes have also severely affected the state’s coast and nearby estuaries. The infrastructure that once provided access for the average North Carolinian to fish at the beach — the piers — have been ever more costly to maintain, driving many to close. It’s an open question as to whether the end of this coastal institution is just over the horizon.
10. Something in our water
In multiple parts of the state, pollutants at alarming levels are in the state’s water supply.
The problems are different from place to place, but the concerns are related. In the Piedmont, continued concerns focus on industrial chemicals showing up in the Haw and Deep rivers, tributaries to the Cape Fear.
A unique and unheralded situation also arose in the federal prosecution of a Brevard city official this fall, over alleged mishandling of lead contamination from a former gun range adjacent to the city’s water supply.
There’s no evidence that the water is unsafe, but federal officials point to contamination of nearby soil. This in turns points to the lack of effective environmental regulation of gun ranges, a problem that could crop up in additional North Carolina communities in the future.